A paper recently published by The Heritage Foundation outlined the threat to religious liberty posed by nondiscrimination laws that elevate sexual orientation to a “protected status” just like race or gender.
One of the cases used to illustrate this point involved a Methodist campground ministry in New Jersey that refused to allow a lesbian couple to rent one of its facilities for their civil union ceremony because of the ministry’s religious beliefs about marriage. The lesbian couple filed a complaint against the ministry for allegedly violating a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. Because the ministry had opened its facilities to the general public, some argued that the ministry could not invoke its religious beliefs—“no matter how deeply held”—in limiting use of the facility for male–female weddings only.
Recently, the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights confirmed the threats outlined in Heritage’s paper by concluding that probable cause exists to pursue charges against the Methodist campground ministry. Although the decision does not end this particular case, it favors the view that legal recognition for same-sex unions and sexual orientation should trump religious liberties.
Of note, the decision was authored by the same New Jersey official, J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, who headed a commission that recently recommended that New Jersey redefine marriage to include homosexual couples.
Despite the set-back, Brian Raum, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, who represents the Methodist campground ministry, stated that his client would continue to fight for the right to honor its religious convictions. According to Raum, his client’s position remains unchanged: “A Christian organization has a Constitutional right to use their facilities in a way that is consistent with their beliefs”.