Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Pushing the Public-Private Boundary on the Jersey Shore

Today's NY Times has an interesting article on a dispute brewing on the Jersey Shore.  A Methodist group owns virtually all of Ocean Grove.  It denied permission to some same sex couples who wanted to use a pavilion for civil union ceremonies.  The core of the dispute is the impact that acceptance of public funds and tax breaks given in return for public access has on the Methodist group's ability to control the use of its property:

The public versus private status of not only the pavilion but also much of the Camp Meeting Association’s property is at the crux of the debate.

Since 1989, Ocean Grove’s beach, boardwalk and oceanfront road have received tax-exempt status under the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program, which was created to encourage use of privately owned space for public recreation and conservation. In its original application for the exemption — which saves the group about $500,000 a year and is up for renewal on Sept. 15, according to Bernard Haney, the Neptune Township tax assessor — the association noted that the properties were open to the public and that the pavilion had been used by outside groups.

. . .

“They’ve taken state, federal and local funds by representing that they are open to the public,” said United States Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat who represents the area, noting that beyond tax exemptions, the group has gotten numerous government grants over the years for building and boardwalk repairs and beach replenishment. “Until now, nobody has ever said that you had to abide by the tenets of the church in deciding who uses the buildings or owns the houses.”

. . .

But Brian Raum, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a family and church rights legal organization that is representing the Camp Meeting Association in its federal lawsuit, said the group had never represented itself as anything but a religious organization, and challenged the idea that receiving government aid meant relinquishing one’s rights. Indeed, many religious groups get state and federal grants of various types.

Ben Barros

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