A New Jersey judge has ruled against a Methodist organization that refused to rent its boardwalk pavilion to a same-sex couple for a civil union ceremony, saying that it violated the Law Against Defamation (LAD) and it was appropriate for the state to revoke its tax-exempt status. Because religious conservatives so regularly refer to this incident as an example of LGBT rights “infringing” on “religious freedom,” it’s important to understand that this ruling has nothing to do with the organization’s religious freedoms.
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a religious organization, and it does own the pavilion in question. But at the core of Judge Solomon Metzer’s decision is the fact that the pavilion’s tax-exempt status was not protected under a religious provision. In 1989, Ocean Grove applied for a Green Acres real-estate tax exemption, a New Jersey property subsidy for conservation or recreational purposes. One of the requirements to qualify for the exemption is that the property be “open for public use on an equal basis.” Thus, when Ocean Grove refused to allow a same-sex couple to utilize its pavilion, it was violating its agreement with the state of New Jersey:
As to “free exercise,” the LAD is a neutral law of general application designed to uncover and eradicate discrimination; it is not focused on or hostile to religion. To the contrary, it carves away exceptions on behalf of religious organizations… Respondent can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the LAD. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.
Ocean Grove now protects its pavilion with a religious exemption and should be free to discriminate against same-sex couples according to its beliefs. The couples who sued did not even pursue damages — they merely wanted to establish that Ocean Grove had illegally discriminated against them. The most important takeaway from this case is that any time opponents of marriage equality claim this New Jersey pavilion as an example of “religious freedom” being infringed upon or Christians as “victims,” they are blatantly wrong and distorting what happened to suit their narrative.