3rd Circuit: NJ ministry will be heard on right to use property according to beliefs

District court will decide on whether to affirm ministry’s right to use its property in manner consistent with its beliefs
Friday, July 17, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled Wednesday that a New Jersey ministry represented by Alliance Defense Fund attorneys should have its First Amendment claims heard in federal district court.

The case involves the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association’s request for a court ruling affirming its constitutional right to use its private property in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs. In 2007, the Camp Meeting declined an application for a civil-union ceremony at one of the ministry’s places of worship, the Boardwalk Pavilion.

“The government should not be able to force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel Brian Raum. “Religious groups have the First Amendment right use their private property in a way that is consistent with their religious beliefs, without government interference. We are pleased that the federal court will have the opportunity to confirm that right.”

The state of New Jersey found “probable cause” that the ministry’s decision violated a state non-discrimination law and told the district court that it believed its investigation was capable of fairly considering the Camp Meeting’s constitutional rights.

Although the federal Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision to allow the state to handle ongoing investigation of the single discrimination claim, the district court will now consider the broader question. The 3rd Circuit’s order notes that both the district court and the state civil rights proceedings focused only on the use of the Boardwalk Pavilion.

“The Association repeatedly emphasizes, however, that its request for declaratory relief concerns its rights with regard to all of its property, not just the Boardwalk Pavilion,” the court wrote. “[I]t is settled that churches, seminaries and other religious facilities are not subject to the LAD [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination]. Because the record before us is only clear with respect to the Boardwalk Pavilion, however, we will remand the Association’s claims regarding the rest of its property to the District Court.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church v. Vespa-Papaleo, in August 2007.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.