Rel. liberty takes hit in new gay 'marriage' suits
OCEAN GROVE, N.J. (BP) -- A series of lawsuits and a new court ruling are fresh examples of how laws granting marriage benefits to gay couples can end up squashing religious liberty, says a Christian attorney involved in one of the cases.
All four cases involve states with gay "marriage" or same-sex civil unions laws: Illinois, Vermont, Hawaii and New Jersey. In Vermont and Illinois, bed and breakfast owners were sued for declining to host a same-sex ceremony or reception, and in Hawaii, a bed and breakfast owner was sued after turning away a lesbian couple who wanted to make a reservation.
In New Jersey, a state judge ruled Jan. 12 that a Christian beachfront property operated by United Methodists violated state non-discrimination laws when it refused to host a lesbian couple's civil union ceremony.
Jim Campbell, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund -- which is representing the Methodist group -- said the cases prove that there is harm to religious liberty when states legalize gay "marriage" or civil unions or pass broad legislation incorporating sexual orientation into non-discrimination laws.
"When people hear that their legislature is considering a law like this and they think, 'What's the harm?' they need to realize that there is this direct threat to religious liberty -- to business owners, employees, religious entities and people who attend all those religious entities," Campbell told Baptist Press. "These four cases are a good demonstration of that. People who are concerned about religious liberty should be concerned about these legal developments."
The New Jersey case involved the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a beachfront property whose stated mission is to "provide opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal in a Christian seaside setting." By charter, the association's board must consist of 10 United Methodist clergy and 10 non-clergy who also are United Methodist.
In 2007, association officials turned away a request by a lesbian couple to host a civil union ceremony in a pavilion at the property. The women filed a complaint with the state's Division on Civil Rights, claiming the association had violated state law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or civil union status. The state ruled against the Methodist property, and a judge on Jan. 12 upheld that ruling. The judge, Solomon Metzger, said that under a real estate tax exemption that benefited Ocean Grove, the property had to be "open for public use on an equal basis."
New Jersey had legalized civil unions in 2006 under court order.
Campbell said the tax exemption did not require public accommodation to the extent the judge ruled.
"Ocean Grove has always held the pavilion open to the public for recreational use when they are not otherwise using the pavilion for their own events," Campbell said. "For instance, if the pavilion is open and a member of the public walks by, they're welcome to come, sit inside, enjoy the scenery, take a break and just sit down on the benches. ... But what [the tax law] does not require and what Ocean Grove has never represented is that the pavilion would be open for all activities or events that any individual would want to hold."
The bed and breakfast cases involve owners with religious objections to gay "marriage" or civil unions:
-- Workers with the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, Vt., told a lesbian couple in 2010 that the property could not host a same-sex "wedding" reception, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit the next year. Gay "marriage" is legal in the state.
-- In Illinois last year, just months after a civil union law went into effect, two bed and breakfasts turned down requests by two men to host their civil union ceremony. The ACLU of Illinois is representing the men in a suit claiming discrimination. The businesses are the Beall Mansion in Alton and the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton.
-- In Hawaii, the Aloha Bed and Breakfast was sued by Lambda Legal after the business chose not to provide a reservation to a lesbian couple.
The Alliance Defense Fund is involved in the Illinois and Hawaii cases.
All of the states have laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodation based on sexual orientation. Those laws, coupled with the legalization of gay "marriage" or civil unions, provide an easy path to a lawsuit against religious groups or business owners with strongly held religious beliefs, Campbell said.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).