A lesbian couple who was barred from holding a civil-union ceremony at a beachfront pavilion owned by a church group has won a legal victory.
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights on Monday found that the refusal by the Methodist Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to rent its square-mile property to the couple for the March 2007 ceremony violated the public accommodation provisions of the state's Law Against Discrimination.
While the ruling is decisively in favor of the couple, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster of Ocean Grove, it does not end the case, which has become a symbol in the gay-rights battle in New Jersey and beyond. An administrative law judge still must decide on a remedy for the parties.
"What this case has always been about from my clients' perspective has been equality," said Larry Lustberg, the couple's lawyer. He said they would seek an order that required the pavilion near Asbury Park to be "open to all on an equal basis."
Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based group that represents the Camp Meeting Association, said his clients would continue to oppose civil unions on the property.
"Our position is the same," he said. "A Christian organization has a constitutional right to use their facilities in a way that is consistent with their beliefs."
Meanwhile, the parties in the dispute are awaiting a ruling from the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the issue should be decided in the division on civil rights or in federal courts. A lower federal court has ruled that the state could consider the case.
In a second ruling yesterday, the Civil Rights Division said that the Camp Meeting Association did not discriminate against another lesbian couple who applied to use the pavilion for their civil-union ceremony in April 2007. That's because by then, the group had stopped renting out the pavilion for any weddings.
The issue has become a rallying point for both sides in the political battle over gay marriage.
Supporters of gay rights say the discrimination shows that New Jersey's two-year-old civil-unions law falls short of its intent to give gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples.
Earlier this month, a state commission headed by J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, the director of the Division on Civil Rights and the author of yesterday's ruling, recommended that the state allow gay couples full marriage rights.