Gay nonprofit in religious Jersey Shore community sues over eviction
NEPTUNE TOWNSHIP — A gay and lesbian community center is taking its landlord to court, claiming its lease was terminated because of anti-gay bias.
QSpot — which provides education and outreach for the LGBT community, and organizes gay and lesbian arts festivals — was informed late this year that their lease at the Jersey Shore Arts Center would not be renewed past December.
The Jersey Shore Arts Center has maintained that the decision is based on the fact that QSpot’s mission is not about the arts. And the arts center's attorney on Tuesday suggested that QSpot is resorting to a lawsuit because it's worried about having to find a new location that will likely charge more rent.
"This may be an economic issue more than anything else," attorney Richard Weber alleged.
QSpot, however, says that the stated reason for the eviction is a cover for bigotry — and simply not true, because QSpot does provide arts programming, including the QFEST New Jersey LGBT Film and Digital Media Festival. Other tenants in the former Neptune High School, including a yoga studio, are not primarily focused on arts. Moreover, the arts was never a requirement in any of QSpot's leases, the lawsuit says.
In September, the township’s first openly gay mayor resigned from his position on the board of the Jersey Shore Arts Center citing the nonprofit’s handling of the lease.
The Jersey Shore Arts Center is located in this township’s Ocean Grove section, a historically religious community that has become home to many gay and lesbian residents and merchants. The land in Ocean Grove remains owned by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and is leased to homeowners and businesses.
In the 2007, the Methodist organization, citing religious beliefs, denied two lesbian couples' requests to use the Ocean Grove Boardwalk Pavilion as a wedding venue. An administrative law judge in 2012 ruled that the camp meeting association's policy was discriminatory under state law.
Weber on Tuesday said that the Ocean Grove Historic Preservation Society knew that QSpot was about gay and lesbian issues when the group first leased space at the high school in 2012.
"All of a sudden now we're against them? We knew from the beginning," he said, adding that a church that leases space at the building is also being asked to leave. "We are not doing anything prejudicial based up on any lifestyle ... We are not prejudiced against the church."
Weber says the nonprofit is trying not to jeopardize its standing with the camp meeting association.
"We can't become a commercial establishment. We have to limit our tenants to what our charter is about. It has to be musical, educational, performing arts. They (QSpot) don’t fit the framework of the mold," Weber said Tuesday.
But QSpot insists that's just what they are.
Their lawsuit claims that the church, which occupies "minimal spece" and paying little rent, is only being evicted "to cover up (JSAC's) own discriminatory behavior."
QSpot Executive Director John Mikytuck pointed out that his organization has grown since it first moved into the building in 2013. Not only has QSpot spent its own money to renovate its space in the building, but the group now has a bigger presence, and outside signage indicating that it is a gay and lesbian organization.
QSpot and its landlords ran into friction earlier this year after QSpot held a candlelight vigil outside the building for the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub massacre.
Jersey Shore Arts Center President Herb Herbst ordered the group to take down a rainbow pride flag that had been hung above QSpot’s entrance and said it was “sort of strange” that QSpot would hold the vigil without asking the center’s directors for permission.
Herbst — a 90-year-old fixture in Ocean Grove's preservation efforts — in an interview this fall also referred to gays and lesbians as "homosexuals," an outdated term that QSpot members said was offensive.
In an interview with New Jersey 101.5 in September, Herbst denied the eviction was anything more than “a business transaction.”
“It’s not theater, not drama, not music,” he said. “I feel sorry for the organization, but we’ve given them ample time to find a new location. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement because they couldn’t get anything in Asbury Park.”
QSpot’s lawsuit, filed last week in Superior Court in Monmouth County, seeks an unspecified amount of damages under the state’s Law Against Discrimination, and asks a judge to prevent the group’s eviction while the litigation proceeds.
“The fact that Herb Herbst would prefer to fight a legal battle, rather than keep a great tenant that has paid rent every month, taken great care of and improved their unit, and provided vital services and arts and education programming to the local community, makes it pretty clear that LGBT bias is driving the JSAC's decision,” Mikytuck said in a statement. “It makes no sense without it.”
“As we have said all along, QSpot will use every available resource to protect our home and defend our right to be in it,” said Mikytuck. “It will be a terrible injustice to QSpot, the LGBT community and our allies if the JSAC is allowed to evict us on New Year’s Eve.”
Weber said he expects a judge to allow QSpot to remain in the building until the lawsuit is resolved.
QSpot is being represented by Michael Long and Steve Rosatto of the Roseland firm Lowenstein Sandler.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.