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Victory in Ocean Grove: What it represents, and doesn’t represent

Steven Goldstein, Founder and Chair Emeritus,
Posted by Steven Goldstein, Founder and Chair Emeritus, on January 13, 2012

A decision has come down in one of the bigger cases involving LGBT civil rights in recent years – and it’s a decision that upholds justice.   A judge has ruled in favor of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, a couple in Ocean Grove, New Jersey who sued the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.  The Association had barred Harriet and Luisa from holding their civil union ceremony at the public pavilion on the Ocean Grove public boardwalk.  Why?  The Association objected to the pavilion’s use by a same-sex couple.

In a claim that strained credulity, the Association postured that the public pavilion was private even though the Association had accepted a public subsidy for the facility and had signed an agreement to make it open to public on a nondiscriminatory basis.   Over the years, opponents of equality have consistently left those crucial facts out of their propaganda.  Instead, they have falsely claimed that the case represents an infringement on religious civil rights.   Let’s make this clear:  Garden State Equality and our partners in the movement for equality passionately oppose forcing religions and clergy to marry anyone they don’t want to marry.  We oppose with equal fervor forcing any house of worship or other religious institution to host any ceremony they don’t want to host.   The new marriage equality bill, The Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, has religious exemptions that reinforce and strengthen those constitutionally guaranteed religious rights.

This is a tremendous victory for the ACLU of New Jersey, the lawyers in the case, and for their cocounsel, the Gibbons law firm.  The ACLU of New Jersey, Gibbons and Gibbons’ partner in charge of pro bono work who worked this case, Larry Lustberg, have all been honored by Garden State Equality in recent years.  Gibbons, incidentally, is cocounsel to Garden State Equality and same-sex couples in the marriage equality case now before the New Jersey courts, Garden State Equality v. Dow.   Larry is among the amazing lawyers, along with Lambda Legal, presenting our marriage equality case before the courts.  We’re in the very best of hands.

In addition to Harriet and Luisa, we also thank Emily Sonnessa and Jan Moore, who had earlier been plaintiffs in the case.  Harriet, Luisa, Emily and Jan are all very active and beloved members of Garden State Equality.  Jeanne LoCicero and Ed Barocas are the ACLU of New Jersey’s lawyers on the case.  We’ve worked with Jeanne and Ed so many times over the years, and we absolutely adore and admire them.  They, along with Larry, are true civil rights champions.  And let’s not forget the Human Rights Campaign, which once again was there when all of us in New Jersey needed them.

Saving the best for last, we want to extend our most heartfelt love and appreciation to Ocean Grove United, one of the most effective grassroots organizations that has emerged anywhere in the United States in recent years.  Ocean Grove United, comprised of LGBT and straight residents of Ocean Grove who stand for equality for all, was founded in the aftermath of the Camp Meeting Association’s ban.   We continue to be inspired by the integrity, courage and passion of all the members of Ocean Grove United, genuine role models for us all.

We join Ocean Grove United in the hope that Ocean Grove now comes together as the united community it has long been – a community whose renaissance LGBT residents have worked hard to lead in great harmony with their neighbors.   May equality and unity prevail.

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