Church group discrimination against New Jersey lesbians ruled unlawful

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A church group yesterday lost its case to a lesbian couple who it barred from holding a civil ceremony on their property.

Civil unions were introduced in New Jersey after the state Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to equal civil rights.

The Methodist group, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, refused to rent out a beach front pavilion to Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster for a ceremony last year.

Yesterday a judge ruled that the refusal was in violation of the public accommodation provisions of the states anti-discrimination laws.

The case, however, is not yet over; the judge has yet to decide on a remedy for both parties.

The parties are still waiting a ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which will decide whether the case should be dealt with by the federal courts or the Division on Civil Rights.

The couple’s lawyer, Larry Lustberg, said that his clients would drive the case forward to try and get a ruling to make the pavilion “open to all on an equal basis.”

He continued: “What this case has always been about from my clients’ perspective has been equality.”

Lawyer for the Alliance Defence Fund Brian Raum, representing the Camp Meeting Association, said that any move to allow civil union ceremonies on the property would be resisted despite the ruling.

He said: “Our position is the same.

“A Christian organization has a Constitutional right to use their facilities in a way that is consistent with their beliefs.”

Earlier this month, a commission to study the effects of having civil partnerships rather than marriages for gay couples, their children and their families delivered its final report, bringing more attention to this contentious area of law.

The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission (NJ-CURC) was established by the state Legislature pursuant to the Civil Union Act, which took effect in February 2007.

The commission studied all aspects of the Act and concluded that civil unions are unequal.

The report said:

“After eighteen public meetings, 26 hours of oral testimony and hundreds of pages of written submission from more than 150 witnesses, this Commission finds that the separate categorisation established by the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children.

“In a number of cases, the negative effect of the Civil Union Act on the physical and mental health of same-sex couples and their children is striking, largely because a number of employers and hospitals do not recognise the rights and benefits of marriage for civil union couples.”

The Governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, backed the commission’s conclusions.

“While this administration is focused squarely on the economic crisis for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that this issue of civil rights must be addressed sooner rather than later,” he said.