✝ The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association prohibits Sunday morning beach use

✝ The rule is missing from the association's website

✝ The state is challenging the rule, threatening fines and taking the association to court


 

In the seaside community that calls itself “God's Square Mile at the Jersey Shore,” all the land is owned by a religious group that has for generations enforced an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt stay off the beach on Sunday morning.

But there are signs that decades-old policy may be coming to an end as a way to resolve a court case brought by the state of New Jersey that could cost the group $25,000 a day in fines for violating state beach access laws.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which has kept beaches closed until noon on Sundays, has deleted that restriction from its website. Item 4 under “Beach Regulations” used to outline the Sunday morning closure. Now, just the number “4” remains on the site, followed by blank space.

The association and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for clarification Wednesday, and the state attorney general's office said it was looking into the matter.

Restricting activity on Sunday morning is central to Ocean Grove's very existence. It was founded in 1869 as a Methodist retreat, centered on an enormous hall called The Great Auditorium, where worship services are held near rows of tent cabins where summer pilgrims come to live in its shadow.

Screenshot of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association website showing missing rule
Screenshot of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association website showing missing rule (Dan Alexander, Townsquare Media)
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Unconstitutional rule?

The association, a nonprofit Christian entity that owns the beach and the land under all of Ocean Grove's houses under a charter given to it by the state in 1870, has long kept people off the beach before noon on Sundays.

The state of New Jersey is challenging the rule, threatening fines and taking the association to court.

The dispute involves an issue that has been contested for generations but never quite settled here: Does a religious group have the right to impose its beliefs on everyone in a community, including those of other faiths, or no faith at all?

“We just feel that's wrong, that it's not what America is supposed to be about, and it makes living here very uncomfortable when you're gay, when you're Jewish, an atheist or agnostic,” said Paul Martin, who bought a house in Ocean Grove in 2003 with his wife, Aliza Greenblatt.

“We have the right to live here, too,” said Greenblatt, who like her husband is Jewish. “We're not anti-Christian. We just want the line between church and state to be respected.”

The couple were among those who defied the rules last year and went onto the beach on Sunday mornings. They said association personnel called the police, but officers did not intervene once they arrived.

Harriet Bernstein is part of a lesbian couple from Ocean Grove whose request to use the boardwalk pavilion for their civil union ceremony was rejected in 2007 by the association on religious grounds. After a court ruled in favor of the couple, the association stopped allowing anyone to wed in the pavilion.

“I feel less comfortable because of the imposition of their religion on everybody that lives here,” Bernstein said. Referring to images of a cross on the badges people are required to purchase in order to use the beach, she said, “I'm Jewish; I don't wear crosses.”

The association did not respond to repeated requests for an interview in recent weeks.

Church in Ocean Grove
Church in Ocean Grove (Bud McCormick)
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“Ocean Grove is God's place"

But in court papers it says what the state is trying to do violates U.S. Constitutional amendments concerning freedom of religion, the taking of private property, and due process and equal protection.

Church and state have never been as neatly separated in Ocean Grove as they are in other places.

Although it is a part of Neptune Township, just north of Asbury Park and about 60 miles south of New York City, Ocean Grove once was its own municipality, having been incorporated by the state Legislature in 1920. But a court ruled that act unconstitutional and dissolved the municipality a year later.

The Sunday morning beach closures dismay some but delight others.

“Ocean Grove is God's place,” said Mary Martin, an 87-year-old retired teacher who moved here from northern New Jersey in 1960. “I love it here. I love the Bible hour six days a week, great speakers, great singing, great fellowship, great joy, everyone welcome.”

Martin shares a feeling often voiced by association members and their supporters that a cherished way of life is under attack in Ocean Grove.

“It used to be no beach at all on Sunday,” she said. “Then we gave in to them and said, ‘OK, after noon on Sunday.’ Now they want to take that away, too. We should be able to enjoy our Sundays.”

Neil Ostrander has a part-time job with the association helping get the auditorium ready for summer. When newcomers arrived, he said, “they knew the deal" about its ownership by a Christian group.

“It's like when someone moves above a bar that's been a bar for 170 years, and then sues it for being a bar,” he said.

Tents in Ocean Grove
Tents in Ocean Grove (Bud McCormick)
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Anyone is welcome on the beach

In court papers, the association writes that "all members of the public are welcome (onto the beach) 365 days a year. Anyone, regardless of race, creed, religion or orientation is welcome onto this private property 99.5% of the year."

Public access is restricted for 45 hours out of the year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a policy the association called “abundantly reasonable.”

“The slight limitation on physical presence on the beachfront on the Lord's Day is consistent with the plaintiff's mission to build and maintain a beautiful seaside community to serve as a place for meditation, reflection and renewal during the summer months,” the association wrote. "The ability to reflect upon an empty and quiet beachfront during this limited time is at the core of plaintiff's very creation. Regardless of one's beliefs, spending the morning hours in an unhurried morning stroll on a less crowded boardwalk has emotional, spiritual and bodily health benefits.”

While acknowledging the association's beach policy “is steeped in its Christian faith,” the group cites several nonreligious reasons for it as well, including allowing lifeguards to have a few hours off at the end of a busy week and advancing “a better quality of life” for residents and visitors, including having more parking available for Sunday morning visits to shops and eateries.

The state takes a contrary view, saying that using chains and locks to keep the public off the sand on Sunday morning violates the association's authority to operate a beach.

(Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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