Christian group may end rule keeping beaches closed on Sunday mornings

In the coastal town of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, known as “God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore,” a religious group has long held ownership of all the land. As a result, they have enforced a unique rule for generations: on Sunday mornings, beachgoers are expected to stay off the beach.

Decades-old policy may finally be reaching its end, signaling a potential resolution to a court case initiated by the state of New Jersey. Failure to comply with state beach access laws could result in hefty fines of $25,000 per day for the group involved.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association has removed the restriction of keeping beaches closed until noon on Sundays from its website. Previously, their website outlined the closure under “Beach Regulations” in item 4. However, now only the number “4” is displayed on the site, followed by empty space.

Requests for clarification were made on Wednesday, but the association and its lawyer did not respond immediately. The state attorney general’s office is currently looking into the matter.

Ocean Grove owes its very existence to the strict limitations placed on activities during Sunday mornings. Established in 1869 as a Methodist retreat, this quaint town revolves around The Great Auditorium, a massive hall that hosts worship services. Rows of tent cabins surround the hall, providing a summer haven for pilgrims seeking solace in its presence.

The association, a nonprofit Christian entity, has been granted a charter by the state in 1870, allowing it to own the beach and the land under all of Ocean Grove’s houses. As part of its practices, the association has traditionally prohibited public access to the beach before noon on Sundays.

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New Jersey is pushing back against the rule, issuing fines and taking the association to court in an attempt to challenge it.

The age-old question still lingers: should a religious group have the authority to enforce its beliefs on the entire community, even if there are individuals with different faiths or no faith at all? This ongoing dispute has divided opinions for generations, but a definitive resolution has yet to be found.

“We strongly believe that this goes against the principles that America stands for. It creates a sense of discomfort for those who identify as gay, Jewish, atheist, or agnostic, making it difficult to truly feel at home here,” expressed Paul Martin. In 2003, Paul and his wife, Aliza Greenblatt, purchased a house in Ocean Grove, which adds to the personal significance of this matter.

“We also have the right to live here,” expressed Greenblatt, a Jewish individual, alongside her husband. “Our intention is not to be anti-Christian, but rather to advocate for the importance of upholding the separation between church and state.”

Last year, the couple was among the individuals who chose to break the rules and venture onto the beach on Sunday mornings. According to them, the association staff contacted the police, but upon their arrival, the officers did not take any action.

In 2007, the association rejected Harriet Bernstein and her lesbian partner’s request to hold their civil union ceremony in the boardwalk pavilion in Ocean Grove, citing religious reasons. However, following a court ruling in favor of the couple, the association decided to prohibit all wedding ceremonies in the pavilion.

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“I feel uneasy due to the enforcement of their religious practices on everyone residing here,” Bernstein expressed. Commenting on the presence of a cross displayed on the badges that individuals must obtain to access the beach, she added, “As a Jewish person, I don’t wear crosses.”

Despite multiple requests for an interview in recent weeks, the association remained unresponsive.

According to court documents, the state’s actions in this case are being argued to be in violation of several U.S. Constitutional amendments, including those protecting freedom of religion, prohibiting the taking of private property without due process, and ensuring equal protection under the law.

In Ocean Grove, the separation between church and state is not as clear-cut as it is in other locations.

Ocean Grove, located just north of Asbury Park and approximately 60 miles south of New York City, used to be its own independent municipality. It was incorporated by the state Legislature in 1920 but was later deemed unconstitutional and dissolved by a court ruling the following year. Despite this, Ocean Grove remains a significant part of Neptune Township.

Some people are disappointed by the Sunday morning beach closures, while others find them enjoyable.

Mary Martin, an 87-year-old retired teacher who relocated from northern New Jersey in 1960, describes Ocean Grove as “God’s place.” She expresses her love for the community, highlighting the Bible hour held six days a week, the presence of great speakers and singers, the sense of fellowship, and the overwhelming joy that permeates the town. One of the aspects she appreciates the most is the inclusivity, as everyone is welcomed with open arms.

Martin echoes the sentiment frequently expressed by members of the association and their supporters that the unique way of life in Ocean Grove is being threatened.

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“It wasn’t always possible to go to the beach on Sundays,” she expressed. “But we eventually compromised and agreed to allow beach visits after noon on Sundays. And now, they want to take that away from us as well. We should have the right to enjoy our Sundays.”

Neil Ostrander assists the association in preparing the auditorium for the summer on a part-time basis. According to him, newcomers are well aware of the fact that the auditorium is owned by a Christian group.

“It’s as if someone moves into a bar that has been operating as a bar for 170 years, and then files a lawsuit against it for being a bar,” he remarked.

The association asserts in their court documents that “the beach is open to the public every day of the year. We welcome anyone, regardless of their race, creed, religion, or orientation, onto our private property for 99.5% of the year.”

The association recognizes that its beach policy is rooted in its Christian faith. However, it also highlights several secular reasons for the policy. These reasons include giving lifeguards a break after a demanding week and improving the overall quality of life for both residents and visitors. Additionally, the policy ensures that there is ample parking available for those who wish to visit shops and eateries on Sunday mornings.

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