Published: June 10, 2007

Gays in a Methodist Town? No Problem (Until Now)



JAN MOORE and Emily Sonnessa, retired antique dealers in their 70s, have lived contentedly in Ocean Grove for a decade, maintaining a four-family home, tending their garden and socializing with friends in the flourishing local gay community.

It never mattered to them that Ocean Grove was founded as a Methodist retreat and that a Methodist organization, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, owns all the land, including the parcel on which Ms. Moore and Ms. Sonnessa’s house sits. The Methodists and gay residents coexisted harmoniously.

Until now — now that Ms. Moore and Ms. Sonnessa, partners for 37 years, and two other lesbian couples want to use the pavilion on the boardwalk for civil union ceremonies. The Camp Meeting Association denied all three couples, saying that the pavilion is part of its church and that the Methodist Church does not approve of gay marriage or civil unions.

“We weren’t even given the opportunity to fill out an application,” Ms. Moore said. “Evidently our interpretation of Christianity differs from the Camp Meeting Association’s interpretation.”

Gays here are up in arms. Letters to the editor criticizing the church have appeared in the local newspaper almost weekly. Randy Bishop, an openly gay deputy mayor of Neptune Township, which includes Ocean Grove, has stated his opposition to the church’s position.

The association sought a meeting with New Jersey’s public advocate, Ronald Chen, which is scheduled for Tuesday. Nancy Parello, a spokeswoman for the public advocate, said the association called after comments by Mr. Chen on the issue appeared in The Asbury Park Press.

Ms. Parello said the public advocate’s office had invited a representative of the Division of Civil Rights, part of the attorney general’s office, to the meeting because “the anti-discrimination laws are the agency’s primary focus.”

Mr. Bishop said he was trying to broker a deal with Scott Rasmussen, the association’s president.

The association said it looked forward to hearing what state officials have to say.

“The Camp Meeting’s values and heritage provided the foundation that has made Ocean Grove such a wonderful and welcoming community,” the Rev. Scott Hoffman, the association’s chief administrative officer, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are confident that a solution will be found to uphold those values that is consistent with both the Methodist Book of Discipline and New Jersey state law.” He said the church would not comment further.

If the association had restricted use of the pavilion to Methodists, it might be able to argue that it had a religious exemption from discrimination laws, said Stephen Hyland, a lawyer from Westmont who specializes in family law involving same-sex couples. But because it allows heterosexuals of any denomination to use the pavilion, he said, it looks more like a “public accommodation,” not unlike a shopping mall.

“If it is found to be a place of public accommodation, then they can be found to be in violation of the law against discrimination,” Mr. Hyland said.

Some gay residents are aggrieved because they are such a large and active part of Ocean Grove’s population. Gays own many of the shops and restaurants. Mr. Bishop, who owns a bed and breakfast here and headed Ocean Grove’s Chamber of Commerce for 10 years, says gays were instrumental in revitalizing this sleepy seaside town.

“I’m disappointed that a place that prides itself, quite frankly, on a sense of community, is looking at some members of its own community and saying: ‘No, you can’t do this. Not here,’ ” he said.

Mr. Bishop said that he could understand the association banning civil unions in Methodist places of worship, several of which are rented out for weddings, but that the pavilion is part of the community.

Bands play there; children skateboard through it. It is even used during Ocean Grove’s periodic “Civil War Living History” weekend for a debate that involves discrimination during the war, created from the papers of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

“To me, that just seems ironic,” Mr. Bishop said.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company