October 2023 Church & State Magazine - October 2023

Flap erupts in N.J. town over beach access on Sunday mornings


Residents of Ocean Grove, N.J., are fighting back against efforts by a religious group to deny them access to a popular beach on Sunday mornings.

Never on a Sunday? N.J. town squabbles over beach access (Getty Images)

The town was founded in 1869 by a group of Methodist ministers, and it was for decades a site for Christian camp meetings. For many years, Ocean Grove maintained religious laws. People were banned from shopping, visiting the beach or driving cars on city streets on Sundays. It took a ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court to end these laws in 1979.

But a flavor of these old “blue laws” still remains. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association insists that people stay off the beach before noon on Sunday during the summer months, arguing that this is a longstanding “tradition” in town.

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. 

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.,” reported the news site NJ.com. Police were summoned, but no one was fined.

Members of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association say the closing stems from the area’s history as a “Christian seaside resort.” Supporters of a local advocacy group called Neptune United say they’re tired of living under someone else’s religious rules. As NJ.com 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 NJ.com, “As a Christian, I respect the Lord’s day. I respect their effort to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath.”

State officials are weighing in, and they support access to the beach at all times. An official with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently informed the Association in writing that they’re likely in violation of New Jersey’s Coastal Area Facilities Review Act.

“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.” 

The flap has died down now because the ban on Sunday morning beach visits is in effect only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. On its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United made a proposal: “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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