By Art Gallagher
Neptune Township’s beachfront and boardwalk in the Ocean Grove section of the Township might not get the estimated $3 million in FEMA funding needed to rebuild because the property is owned by the private non-profit and religious Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA), according to an article by freelance journalist Caren Chesler published at NJSpotLight.
Neptune Township Committee Member and Ocean Grove business owner Randy Bishop, as well as Michael Bascom, the Township’s CFO are working with OGCMA to pursuade FEMA to pay for the repairs on the stretch of beach that connects the regional shoreline from Asbury Park south to Spring Lake.
In a press release posted on OGCMA’s website, President Dr. Dale C. Whilden said, “The Camp Meeting is fully committed to restoring Ocean Grove’s beautiful beachfront, a keystone of our community as well as a protection from ocean storms, and we’re on track to implement a comprehensive beach and boardwalk restoration plan. With God’s blessing and the assistance of our local, state and federal officials, as well as support from individuals and organizations, our beach will open on Memorial Day weekend.”
Ocean Grove received FEMA assistance after the 1992 Nor’easter, but did not after Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Chesler wrote that OCGMA’s religious commitment to traditional marriage could sway FEMA against funding the beach/boardwalk rebuilding:
Some fear the camp meeting association will be penalized for what two New Jersey courts ruled last year to be discriminatory behavior toward a gay couple who wanted to have their civil union ceremony under a pavilion on Ocean Grove’s boardwalk.
In 2007, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster applied to the association to use its pavilion. The Methodist organization denied their request, even though it had allowed the pavilion to be used for weddings and other secular functions. The two filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, and in January 2012 an administrative law judge ruled that their civil rights were violated.
The Methodist organization appealed the ruling, and in October the Civil Rights Division’s director reaffirmed the administrative judge’s ruling. The case resulted in the association losing its property tax exemption for the pavilion that it had enjoyed since 1989 under the state’s Green Acres Program, because state officials ruled the structure no longer met the requirements as a place that is open to all members of the public, The association was able to get the exemption reinstated because religious services are held at the pavilion.
In advocating for the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemptions Act, which was passed by the State Legislature early last year, gay activists dropped their opposition to religious organizations such as OGCMA from expressing their religious beliefs on marriage by restricting what kind of ceremonies could be performed on their property. However, when the bill did not become law, the activists continued pursue their case against religious freedom.
Ralph del Campo, OGCMA’s interim chief operating officer, told Chesler that he thought his organization’s legal defense of their religious convictions would not impact FEMA’s decision. FEMA was non-committal on the subject:
“FEMA will consider a broad spectrum of information that helps us understand whether any private nonprofit organization will qualify under the Stafford Act criteria for private nonprofit organizations.”