Fighting Discrimination

A N.J. religious group is trying to limit access to a popular beach on Sunday mornings. Some folks are erecting umbrellas and spreading blankets anyway.

  Rob Boston

Here’s the true mark of a theocrat: He obsesses over what other people are doing, even though their actions in no way impact his ability to worship, pray or be religious.

We’re seeing an example of this play out on a small portion of waterfront property in Ocean Grove, N.J. This town has a strange feature: A Methodist group called the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association owns a section of the beach and for 154 years has insisted that people stay away until noon on summer Sundays, reported

At the same time, the beach is considered an open area, and state laws guarantee people access to such spaces – even before noon if they choose.

Let’s go to the beach!

Things came to a head this summer when some residents decided they wanted to go to the beach before noon. They simply stepped over a chain on the boardwalk, ignoring a sign that reads, “An Ocean Grove Tradition. Beach Closed Sunday Morning Until 12 p.m.”

Members of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association say the closing stems from the area’s history as a “Christian seaside resort.” (This is the same group that has been in the news for building a controversial cross-shaped pier.) Supporters of a local advocacy group called Neptune United say they’re tired of living under someone else’s religious rules. As reported, “The group has organized Sunday morning beach trips the entire summer, hopping over the chain and setting up camp on the sand in defiance of the association’s rules.”

Association members aren’t happy. A woman who supports the Association’s rule told “As a Christian, I respect the Lord’s day. I respect their effort to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath.”

A lingering ‘blue law’

But how does this arbitrary rule do that, exactly? The Association restricts access to the beach on Sunday mornings between Memorial Day and Labor Day only. Are we to seriously believe it’s sinful to be on the beach before noon on Sept. 3 but not Sept. 10? Or that an activity that would desecrate what some (but not all) Christians consider to be the Sabbath at 11:55 a.m. suddenly becomes no problem at 12:01 p.m.?

Things used to be much worse in Ocean Grove. The town used to ban all beach visits on Sundays, as well as shopping and even driving on city streets. The New Jersey Supreme Court put a stop to that in 1979. Today, Association members seem to be clinging to the remnants of this weird blue law for the sake of “tradition.” But it’s an imposition on other people who don’t share their religious outlook and should go.

Thankfully, state officials are weighing in. An official with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently wrote to the Association to let them know they’re likely in violation of New Jersey’s Coastal Area Facilities Review Act.

The state’s warning

“The purpose of this warning is to advise you of the above potential violation to provide you with an opportunity to voluntarily take corrective actions and to engage in discussions with the DEP,” the letter stated. “Please be advised, that the DEP may continue to monitor the site for compliance and we are available to provide guidance as needed.”

Here’s an idea: New Jersey officials have nearly 10 months to work on a solution. They should start by treating separation of church and state like a beachgoer does sunscreen: apply it liberally.

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