Monday, October 20, 2008

Will gay marriage threaten the tax exempt status of churches?

To recap, I received a pro-Prop. 8 mailer containing all sorts of scary talk about how the legalization of gay marriage will strip Christians of their religious freedoms across the board. I've been looking into the cases listed in the mailer one by one to determine whether the threat to our religious freedom is real. Here's the next one on the list:

Same-sex marriage threatens tax exempt status of churches. The Methodist Church's Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey was stripped of its tax-exempt status for part of its property after it refused, for religious reasons, to allow a lesbian couple to hold a "civil-union" ceremony at a pavilion on the camp's property.

Wow. A lesbian couple demanded to be married in a Methodist church, the church refused, and for that it was stripped of its tax exempt rights! How frightening that churches will now be forced to accommodate gay and lesbian couples who demand, upon threat of lawsuit, to be married in our sanctuaries!

Before we have a collective heart attack, let's take a look at the pavilion in question:

This is an open-air pavillion on a beach boardwalk that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The locals understand that it is controlled by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) which is governed by a Methodist board of trustees. But the locals also understand this property to be open to public use. While it is used for worship services, Bible studies, gospel choir performances, it has also been open to the public for weddings and other events and generally provides refuge for pedestrians and beach-goers looking for a place to rest.

So you can see why one of the major considerations in the State of New Jersey's decision in this case was whether this pavillion was for public or private use based on its history. "Evaluating these matters under the appropriate section of the LAD [Law Against Discrimination]. . . will require a determination as to whether Respondent's pavillion rental is a public accommodation subject to the LAD's anti-discrimination provisions, or is exempt as a program which is distinctly private." Notice how the State is ready to recognize exemptions from LAD provisions in cases where the property is private. The problem is, OGCMA couldn't demonstrate that the use of these facilities was distinctly private.

Even weirder was that the State had trouble determining whether OGCMA is even a religious organization. While acknowledging that the state Supreme Court had at one time confirmed the OGCMA's religious status in a case some thirty years ago, "evidence of subsequent changes, such as those relating to the Respondent's relationship with and funding by government entities, may demonstrate that Respondent is no longer a religious organization."

I looked into this "relationship" a bit. First of all, OGCMA doesn't just own the pavillion, but much of Ocean Grove's choicest beach property including, apparently, 1000 feet of the ocean. Furthermore, within the last two decades OGCMA has lobbied U.S. Representative Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth) for state and federal funds to have their property repaired. This includes $250,000 in state funding to replace the roof of the Great Auditorium and federal funds to repair the Ocean Grove boardwalk after a 1992 storm. While all this government money was rolling in, they also successfully secured tax exempt status for themselves as if they were just like any other private religious organization. So which are they? A public or a private organization? Rep. Frank Pallone stated, "They've taken state, federal and local funds by representing that they are open to the public."

Sure, the pro-Prop. 8 mailer correctly reports that OGCMA was "stripped of its tax-exempt status" as a result of this civil union lawsuit. But that's because the OGCMA was getting away with enjoying the benefits of government funding and tax-exempt status at the same time. All the State did was decide, in view of this lawsuit, which side of the line the OGCMA should properly fall.

Sounds fair to me. But instead of giving you the facts, the pro-Prop. 8 mailer would have you believe that this lawsuit unjustly stripped a church organization of its rightful tax-exempt status in favor of the homosexual agenda. That just isn't so.