August 14, 2007

Church Town

by PG

The "company towns" of yore, in which a large employer owned most of the property in an area, have become increasingly rare in the U.S. However, a news story about what might be considered the sequel to Dale v. Boy Scouts introduced me to a new creature: a town in which all of the land is owned by a church. Ocean Grove, NJ, was originally founded by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in 1869 as a Methodist seashore community, and many of the people with residences build on land leased from the OGCMA are only there in summer.

After the recent instituting of civil unions for same-sex couples in New Jersey, two Ocean Grove residents sought to hold a ceremony in the Boardwalk Pavilion, and when not permitted to do so filed a discrimination complaint with the state. New Jersey still is reviewing the claim, but OGCMA recently filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against the state to prevent enforcement of the law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- the same law Dale brought to bear against the BSA. I suspect this suit was a move counseled by OGCMA's attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund, which is in the business of establishing useful precedents for Christian organizations.

The first cause of action is "violation of the plaintiff's right to freedom of speech." The claims is that "Defendant is violating the Camp Meeting Associationís free speech rights by threatening to force the Association to use its facilities to celebrate same-sex 'civil union' ceremonies. Such use of the Associationís facilities would communicate approval of such 'unions' which is inconsistent with the Associationís views."

Ah, scare-quotes. The argument that any activity that occurs on OGCMA's property will be seen as OCGMA-endorsed is quite weak. No one is likely to think that OCGMA was endorsing inflatable dolls for grown men merely because Davy Jones sang "Rubberene" at their Auditorium last month.* This is a space described in OGCMA's suit as one of the structures and facilities "dedicated to religious worship and other ministry related activities... used throughout the summer for Sunday morning worship services and other functions directly related to the Associationís religious purposes." That it also is used for performances by Jones and other secular musicians goes unmentioned.

The second cause of action, right of expressive assocations, is marginally stronger. Although it reiterates the foolishness about "communicating approval," it makes a better case by stating, "Plaintiffís right of expressive association will be violated if it is forced to symbolically join with those who desire to use the Camp Meeting Associationís facilities for activities inconsistent with the Holy Bible and doctrine of the United Methodist Church. Such forced association would cause it to express a message contrary to Biblical teaching as interpreted by the Association and the United Methodist Church."

This claim doesn't require a judge or jury to believe that someone observing a civil union occuring on a boardwalk pavilion will think "The United Methodists endorse same-sex unions." The injury arises not from what is supposedly communicated, but from the act of forcing an association that the Church simply does not want; even if no one gets a message of endorsement, the expression itself harms the Church.

The third cause of action, free exercise of religion, is the strongest. If it follows this pattern for its brief, the ADF will violate a cardinal rule of brief-writing, which is to make your best argument first. I understand why they used the order they did because they're depending on the Dale precedent, which did not involve free exercise of religion, but their case is too different from the Boy Scouts'. These couples aren't trying to become part of the church; they just want to use a facility for a couple hours. They're allowed to use it for all the other purposes that other people can use it for -- participating in church activities, as well as simply resting there or skateboarding through. The problem comes with what they want to do in the facility, which is to have a homosexual civil union ceremony there. This is very different from Dale, who wanted to be a scout leader but did not want to do anything different in that role than a heterosexual would do. The Boy Scouts wanted him gone because of what he was, not for anything that he said or did with his Scouts.

According to the complaint, "The Camp Meeting Association has a distinct religious mission consistent with the beliefs of the United Methodist Church which teaches that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with Holy Scripture and that its facilities should not be used to conduct same-sex 'civil union' ceremonies." If the facilities can be used for secular purposes but specifically not for civil unions, then there is a decent argument that forcing the OCGMA to use a facility they own for a purpose forbidden by their denomination's rules violates their freedom of religion.

Incidentally, the current OCGMA president is Scott Rasmussen, founder and CEO of the political polling firm Rasmussen Reports, as well as the co-founder of ESPN.

* I don't know if "Rubberene" was on the setlist for the Ocean Grove performance, but Jones certainly sang about going to Mexico where "I lightly took advantage of a girl who loved me so."

August 14, 2007 01:25 AM | TrackBack
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