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Ocean Grove slaps
gays in the face

Ocean Grove slaps
gays in the face

Kate_walter

New Jersey may have civil unions, but in Ocean Grove a religious group is playing the First Amendment card to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to celebrate their unions in the boardwalk pavilion.

When I was a kid growing up at the Jersey Shore we made jokes about "Ocean Grave" and how they locked the town gates on Sunday and forbade driving and shopping (and how they'd probably outlaw breathing if they could get away with it). Those bans were ruled unconstitutional in 1979, but the town of Ocean Grove still hasn't learned its lesson. This past Labor Day weekend the whole place--one square mile--was buzzing about its newest controversy. It was the first conversation I overheard on the boardwalk.

"Why can't they do it in Bradley Beach?" an old-timer asked. "Why here?"

I was tempted to reply, "Because they live here," but I kept my mouth shut.

I knew immediately that he was referring to the two lesbian couples who wanted to have their civil union ceremonies in the boardwalk pavilion and whose requests were denied by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, the Methodist group that founded the summer retreat in 1869. They own the pavilion, which is used for worship services and other activities, including the weddings of straight couples.

As the beach season ended, the Camp Meeting Association was locked in a battle with the state's Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating a discrimination complaint. The Methodists are digging in their First Amendment religious heels and suing the state, claiming the government cannot force them to use their property in a way that violates their beliefs.

Lawyers will now debate the private vs. public status of the pavilion. This issue sets up neighbor against neighbor. On September 3, hundreds protested the ban at the association's annual meeting.

Politeness reigns in Ocean Grove, and politeness kept things friendly and civil for years between the Methodists and the gay and lesbian home and business owners who helped revive the decaying Victorian resort. When my former partner and I rented houses there for three summers in the mid-1980s we were tempted to buy, but the town was on the skids, with many grand hotels converted into homes for the mentally ill. We stupidly thought the town was a risky investment. But the climate changed dramatically in the 1990s, and then whenever we visited, we noticed more and more gays and lesbians. Now we seem to be everywhere.

On Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, the Daily Grind coffeehouse featured Virago, a folk-rock lesbian duo back from a stint in Provincetown. As I sat there with four gay friends, I saw that the audience was mostly lesbian, although many others stopped by to put a buck in the tip basket. In Ocean Grove, musicians play on the sidewalk as people sit and listen. Almost directly across the street, at Nagle's, a restaurant and ice cream shop that has been there forever, a piano player and singer belted out standards. At a few points the old-school vocalist almost drowned out the gay duo, who took it in good stride. It felt like a clash between old Ocean Grove and new Ocean Grove.

Every Sunday during the summer, the Camp Meeting Association hosts guest preachers in the Great Auditorium for its worship services. The Great Auditorium is an architectural marvel--a huge wooden structure with impeccable acoustics and fresh breezes wafting though the space. (Woody Allen featured it in Stardust Memories.) I had gone to concerts there but never a service until Sunday, September 2. When I saw that the Reverend Dr. James Forbes from New York's Riverside Church was preaching, my friends and I decided to attend. I hoped it would be OK to wear shorts.

Since I knew Riverside was famously liberal, I prayed the visiting minister would address the conflict. Even though he was not on his home turf, the Reverend Forbes got right into it and said, "So, I've been reading in The New York Times about some trouble here in Ocean Grove." I elbowed my friend. "Everyone is God's children," he continued, "and that includes gays and lesbians."

"Yes," I said aloud, and started to clap along with about 50 other people in a room with about 500 worshipers.

The minister was a magnificent speaker who used body language to get across his various points about becoming leaves of healing. He leaned into the floral arrangements and then leaned into the faces of the Camp Meeting Association officials surrounding him on the dais. It seemed bold. When the Reverend Forbes finished preaching, I was one of the first to pop up for a standing ovation. Slowly people rose, bit by bit. Others seemed hesitant, afraid to stand for fear it would be interpreted as agreeing with him, so they applauded politely from their seats. The simple true message Forbes conveyed to his fellow Christians at the Great Auditorium was big news.

The beach was packed on a beautiful Labor Day weekend, and the water was great. Ironically, the association's intransigence may endanger federal, state, and local funds that protect the shoreline. The town had represented itself as open to the public when it received monies for boardwalk repair and beach replenishment. A religious group can't have it both ways. As a gay person and frequent visitor who watched this resort come back to life over two decades, the Methodists' position regarding the use of their precious pavilion is not just discriminatory--it's a slap in the face to the people who revived Ocean Grove.

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Kate Walter