The Claim: A church in New Jersey is being sued for not allowing a lesbian wedding and may lose their tax exempt status.
What is the issue?
per the internet ..
This issue involves the requested use of part of a Methodist Campground, specifically their beach pavilion, by a lesbian couple for a civil union ceremony. When the campground refused to allow this the couple then contacted New Jersey govt. agencies
In response to the complaint the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection decide that the Ocean Grove Camp should lose its tax exemption for a large portion of its property.
The following resource has an audio link... http://www.cwfa.org/articledisplay.asp? id=13423&department=CFI&categoryid=freedom (no longer active)
One resource (Concerned Woman for America with audio link) went so far as to say that the church is under attack by homosexuals. The question is asked on this resource: “Does this mean that any church that operates a camp or retreat facility could have this happen?” The answer given is: “ Yes”. After citing first amendment rights they go on to say the recognizing of same sex unions by New Jersey opened the door to this and that this is being used as a tool to attack church property. The resource claims that this is proof that they (the resource) are not alarmists – that this is really their (the homosexuals) agenda – to force the church to change its view on homosexuality and eventually have church leaders arrested who oppose the “homosexual agenda”.
So it this true? ...
Did this couple set out to attack church property?
Could this happen to any church anywhere in the United States which owns a campground or retreat center?
Is this the first step that will lead to the arrest of church leaders that oppose Christianity?
Just by the information shared this certainly appears to be a violation of the religious freedom of this United Methodist campground which clearly has in its bylaws specific guidelines for the use of its facilities.
So what is going on?
To understand the answers to these questions we will need to look at facts. Not the off-the-wall ramblings of far right Christian radio. To understand what is going on we will need to look at New Jersey’s Green Acres open space program.
What is the New Jersey Green Acres open space program? This is a government funded program that exists to provide matching funds to non- profit organizations (and others) for the purpose of acquiring and developing land for public use.
Here is the mission statement of this government program…
To achieve, in partnership with others, a system of interconnected open spaces whose protection will preserve and enhance New Jersey’s natural environment and its historic, scenic, and recreational resources for public use and enjoyment.
Here is an application for non-profit organizations to apply for this funding
If you peruse the above document you will see a long list of qualifications and requirements for your organization to be awarded government funds. The words; “pubic use” occur prominently throughout the document.
Here are some excerpts..
Agree to provide public access, unless the Commissioner determines that public accessibility would pose an unacceptable risk to the land or its natural resources
Agree not to sell, lease, exchange, or donate the lands except to the State, or local government unit, another qualifying tax exempt nonprofit organization, or the Federal government for recreation and conservation purposes (and then only with the prior written approval of the Commissioner);
The nonprofit may purchase land in fee simple or it may acquire a perpetual conservation easement or historic preservation easement on the property, as long as meaningful public access is provided to the project area. Meaningful public access must be provided to every project funded under this program. Eligible acquisition projects include, but are not limited to, the purchase of water reserves, natural areas, unique land types, historic sites, conservation areas, and open space for active or passive outdoor recreation purposes (the bold is their emphasis, not mine)
------------- As can be seen from the above, any nonprofit organization that uses these funds MUST provide public access. That is why the fund is there. Additionally, the organization cannot sell the property to just anyone. They must either sell it to another qualifying tax exempt nonprofit organization or to the state or local govt. or to the federal govt. for recreation and conservation purposes. This can only be done by the approval of the Commissioner. If you accept these funds you must accept the conditions that come with them.
Additional excerpt from this document:
TAX EXEMPTION PROGRAM
There is an acute need in New Jersey for natural open space areas to serve public recreation and conservation purposes. The New Jersey Legislature recognized that public funds for the purchase and maintenance of open space are limited and should be supplemented by private individuals and organizations. It was determined to be "in the public interest to encourage the dedication of privately owned open space to public use and enjoyment."
In 1974, the Green Acres Tax Exemption Program was created to help meet the open space deficit in New Jersey. This program offers the incentive of local property tax exemption to certain nonprofit organizations or corporations that own recreation or conservation lands in New Jersey and are willing to open their private land to the public.
Any nonprofit organization that qualifies for exemption from Federal Income Tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and owns natural open space in New Jersey is eligible to make application under this program.
The Tax Exemption Program is in its thirty second year and, to date, over 65,000 acres of privately owned open space have been opened to the public for a wide variety of environmental and recreational uses. These sites are located in 134 municipalities throughout the state. Approximately 65 organizations have benefited from the Program.
The preservation of open space is a goal shared by many individuals and groups in New Jersey. The Tax Exemption Program is proof that the government and the private sector can work together successfully to achieve this goal. New Jersey must continue to explore methods of preserving open space, other than fee simple acquisition, if the state is to remain rich with "green acres."
Applications, procedural guides, and the enabling legislation regarding the Tax Exemption Program are available on the Green Acres webpage at www.nj.gov/dep/greenacres. For more information, please contact Larry Fink, Green Acres Program, Department of Environmental Protection, P.O. Box 412, Trenton NJ 08625 (609) 984-0500.
This is not a church rights issue. This is a separation of church and state issue. When you accept government funds you must jump through government hoops. This public fund was not created for the church to build a special club that kept part of the public out. It was created to provide financial assistance to those individuals or groups who were interested in creating places for all the public to go and enjoy the great outdoors.
Additionally the pavilion had been rented out for marriage ceremonies over the years. See page 6 #15 of the ADF document After this request they discontinued this practice.. See page 8 item # 22 from the document
So could this happen to any church that owns campground or retreat property as stated by Christian resources?
What about their statement about homosexuals seeking to attack church property?
If you read the ADF document mentioned above you will find that the couple did not even know it was a religious campground per page 9 item #27.
What about the question of pastors being arrested for speaking out against homosexuality?
This far out claim is explored throughout these various pages on myths. Suffice to say there is nothing in this case that even remotely suggests that this is the intent. The complaint is about the use of a publicly funded building for use by the public. It is not about having religious leaders arrested for what they believe.
So what is my take on this?
Well here we go again. I am again disappointed with the misinformation given from Christian resources. As reviewed above, the claims given by Christian resources were false. The conclusions that they reached had no basis in the facts of the case at hand especially since there was no acknowledgment of the Green Acres government funding issue. Instead this was made to look like so called “gay activists” trying to overrule a church over use of the churches own property. Fanatic bogus claims were made that this could happen to any church anywhere. Last time I checked, bearing false witness was still on the list of the ten commandments. also note that they did not lose their exemption on the entire property. It appears they lost their funding on that portion of the property that was not open for public use.
This wasn’t really exclusive church property. They tied themselves in to a government funded program whose sole purpose was to provide financial assistance for the creation of developed areas for public use. They can’t sell it without government permission. They can’t close it to public access. Yes it is a first amendment issue but not the kind of issue that is presented. This is a case of the church entangling itself in governments funding which always has strings attached. The church cannot take governments funds and then violate the agreement with the government . If churches do not want to deal with things like this then they need to stay separate from government. For a Baptist perspective on this sort of thing here is a link.
But there is a greater issue apart from the legal issues raised…
It’s called the great commission of Christ .. to go and make disciples. This is supposedly even the mission of this campground as stated in the ADF legal document page 6 item #13.. This ceremony was not being done in a sanctuary. It was to be done in an open air pavilion on the beach.
God was sending a whole entourage of people to this church for the church to be a witness to Him. But they turned them away long before the date. All this church had to do was dust the sand off its butt, walk up to these people and say: “You know, we don’t agree with everything you do, but Jesus loves you and wants you to be part of the kingdom” That’s all they had to do. That’s all it would have taken to be a witness to Christ.
How has this action affected our witness? And what will God say to this church when they meet him in heaven? We will have to leave that one to God.
My fear is that we are so busy trying to protect the church and trying to be right that we have forgotten our mission. If it had been my church, I would have served the food. What an opportunity this was. Or in this case .. a missed opportunity. And not only a missed opportunity but a destroyed opportunity. And that is the saddest thing of all