Ocean Grove, NJ -- September 1, 2009
As the summer chills to a close here, I received the sad news that the ACLU has turned down my petition to challenge an organization that accepts taxpayer money but denies beach access based on religious beliefs.
More God's Beach/Your $$$ Photos: CLICK HERE
Sunny Day - Empty Beach: Just the way God wants it.
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA), a religious ministry whose trustees must all be members of the United Methodist Church, receives an annual $500,000 taxpayer largesse in the form of a New Jersey open space tax exemption.
For decades they have closed the beach to all on summer Sunday mornings during their worship services.
No, it's not just no lifeguards on duty. They literally rope off the beach. No one is allowed on the sand or near the water.
The OGCMA's beach property has also benefited from another taxpayer financed bounty. In 2002, they were the recipient of a major Army Corp of Engineers beach replenishment project financed with millions of state and federal dollars.
I filed my complaint with the ACLU of NJ on Sunday, June 28, 2009, at the start of the beach season. In the rejection letter, ACLU Intake Manager A. Herrarte said, "Unfortunately, the ACLU-NJ is unable to assist you in this matter. We are a private, non-profit organization with limited resources; therefore, we must be very selective in choosing our cases."
The ACLU-NJ has taken a number of cases to protect the freedom of religion for individuals. I wonder why it's not important when a religious organization steps over the line? The OGCMA clearly accepts taxpayer dollars and then denies beach access for religious reasons to a space that, by law, should always be open. In New Jersey beach access to the water line is a right.
Ocean Grove: Tax Exempt - But it's still closed on Sunday Mornings
Shouldn't the ACLU at least want to make a few phone calls about this egregious case of discrimination based on religious belief? Year after year, thousands of beach goers come to Ocean Grove on sunny summer Sunday mornings only to find their tax dollars hard at work keeping them off the beach.
The OGCMA is also embroiled in another issue involving discrimination and denial of public facility access.
Though gay and lesbian couples have the right to civil unions in New Jersey, the OGCMA claims it has a First Amendment right to deny civil union ceremonies in their boardwalk pavilion, where for decades heterosexual couples have celebrated the exchange of wedding vows.See: Ocean Grove slaps gays in the face, Advocate.com.
In this case, they have staked out the pavilion as a religious facility, a church by definition, in the midst of the tax exempt New Jersey open space.
A little background, Ocean Grove was a theocracy since it's founding in 1896 as a Christian summer retreat. Though the religious governance of Ocean Grove was abolished by a 1979 court ruling, many issues regarding the rights of residents have never been adequately addressed.