TRENTON - A New Jersey judge ruled Thursday that a church group violated the state's discrimination laws when it prevented a lesbian couple from holding a civil union ceremony on its property in 2007.
The dispute began when the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association stopped the couple from using its boardwalk pavilion, an area it rented out for weddings.
Administrative Law Judge Solomon Metzger wrote in Thursday's ruling that the pavilion was a public space that advertised itself as a wedding venue without any mention of religious preconditions.
He rejected the church's contention that the pavilion was an extension of its wedding ministry, noting that weddings had been performed at the pavilion for at least 10 years before the dispute arose and that there was no proof that couples, "particularly those that chose secular vows, or that were of other faiths, were ever told that they were participating in a ministry."
The church had argued that its freedom of religious expression would be violated if it were forced to allow same-sex ceremonies to be performed on its property.
Metzger noted that the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary penalties, and he did not impose any Thursday.
"It does not appear that respondent acted with ill motive," he wrote. "Respondent opposes same-sex unions as a matter of religious belief, and in 2007 found itself on the wrong side of recent changes in the law."
The ruling was forwarded to the Division on Civil Rights, which has 45 days to adopt, modify or reject it.
Attorneys representing the church said they were reviewing the decision for possible next steps.
"The government should not be able to force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs," Jim Campbell, an attorney representing the church, said in a statement Thursday.