Ocean Grove, N.J.

When Sandy swept across the Jersey shore in October 2012, the coastal town of Ocean Grove was spared the worst. Sure, half the town’s boardwalk was destroyed and its pier was swept out to sea. And yes, sand, trees, and concrete benches were carried two blocks inland, while entire buildings were picked up and moved across town. But Ocean Grove’s crown jewel, an ornate and beautiful 6,250-seat auditorium, built in 1894, survived. It only had a third of its roof torn off. The auditorium’s foundation was intact and, most important, its 11,561-pipe organ was unscathed by the wind and rain.

So despite everything, the residents of Ocean Grove counted themselves lucky. That is, until they had to deal with the federal government. Ocean Grove has been denied rebuilding funds from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In one sense, this denial is part of the Obama administration’s quiet campaign against religion in the public square. Yet the story of FEMA’s conflict with Ocean Grove is about more than just Barack Obama. It’s the story of modern America’s rebellion against its religious foundations, rendered in miniature.

In the late 1860s, a Methodist preacher named William Osborn assembled a small group of pastors from around Philadelphia to purchase a patch of land at the shore in central New Jersey. On July 31, 1869, they christened their one square mile of paradise “Ocean Grove.”

At first, it was just a campsite—the preachers and their flocks pitched tents during the summer in order to get away from the bustle of the city. That December they organized a government for the nascent community, setting up the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the Northeast of the 1860s, this was a commonplace: Camp meeting associations stemming from the Second Great Awakening were formed in Martha’s Vineyard, Willimantic, Conn., Merrick, N.Y., and elsewhere.

Ocean Grove’s camp meeting was particularly successful. In 1870 the New Jersey state legislature granted the Camp Meeting Association a charter, giving them the power to hold and maintain their property, establish infrastructure, and even create a police force—all in the name of setting their land aside for “the perpetual worship of Jesus Christ.” It was, as they say, a different time.

Moving beyond simple campsites, the association set about building a town. They mapped a network of streets and plots of land. They dug wells and eventually ran electric lines. In 1894, the Great Auditorium, a grand Victorian building at the center of town, was erected in just 92 days. Throughout this period, Ocean Grove thrived. Before he was elected president, James Garfield summered there. Later, Ulysses Grant would be a frequent visitor, often popping in to see his sister, who lived in town.

One of the peculiar laws the town established was a prohibition against the presence of horses (and later cars) anywhere on the streets, parked or moving, from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday. This ban was absolute. One Sunday in 1875, President Grant arrived by carriage and, upon reaching the gates at the town limits, tethered his horses and walked the remaining half mile to his sister’s house. (Grant was so fond of Ocean Grove that his final public appearance took place at the Great Auditorium, during a reunion of Civil War Army chaplains. As Wayne Bell recounts in his history of the town, Grant was introduced to speak by one Dr. A. J. Palmer, who concluded his remarks by declaring that “no combination of Wall Street sharpers shall tarnish the luster of my old commander’s fame for me.” Bell reports, “Grant was too overcome with emotion to acknowledge the thunderous ovation and retired without a word.”)

In 1879, the state created a new township, called Neptune, and placed Ocean Grove within its boundaries. But while Ocean Grove paid some taxes to Neptune, they continued to provide their own city services and retained independent authority over local laws.

Yet eventually, Ocean Grove was caught in the church-state tensions that were building between elected officials and the judiciary. In 1920, the state legislature incorporated Ocean Grove as a fully independent borough. But a year later, the state court of appeals held that this was unconstitutional because of Ocean Grove’s religiously based ordinances. The municipality was dissolved, and Ocean Grove reverted to being a semi-autonomous part of Neptune township, with the Camp Meeting Association still in charge of governance.

Indeed, most of Ocean Grove’s idiosyncratic rules stemmed from its Christian founding. It was a dry town, for instance. Through most of its history, the town’s beach was closed on Sundays. But the most peculiar fact of life in Ocean Grove is that the Methodist Association retained ownership of all land—people who owned property in Ocean Grove only owned the structures. They held 99-year, renewable easements from the Camp Meeting Association for the land underneath them.

The state tolerated these local laws because the town would not have existed without its religious foundation, which had, for generations, existed with the explicit approval of the government. It was, all in all, a happy state of affairs.

That is, until one evening in March 1976, when Ocean Grove police arrested Louis Celmer Jr. for drunk driving. Celmer was convicted of the offense when he went before the Ocean Grove Municipal Court. But he appealed the decision, contending that the Ocean Grove police force lacked the standing to arrest and charge him. The very fact of Ocean Grove’s police, he argued, was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. He fought all the way to the state supreme court, which wrote a sweeping decision in his favor ordering Ocean Grove to turn over all municipal powers to Neptune.

Morris Daniels dedicates his 1919 history of Ocean Grove “to the glory and honor of the fathers—worthy men, ministers and laymen—who, in the Providence of God, were privileged to establish Ocean Grove, and after zealously guarding it as ‘a pearl of great price,’ have enjoined upon their successors ‘to keep these lands a perpetual oblation upon Christ’s altar.’ ”

More than a century of that work—the labor of generations—had been undone at a stroke. By a drunk.

Neptune does the police work in Ocean Grove these days, and plows the streets in the winter. In return, middle-class Neptune gets access to Ocean Grove’s very upper-class tax base. Yet in the years following the Celmer decision, Ocean Grove was allowed to retain some of its distinctive traditions by becoming, in effect, a massive homeowner’s association. So today, the beach is still closed until 12:30 on Sundays—but now violations run afoul of association bylaws, not city ordinances.

It may not have been perfect, but this accommodation was enough for the state of New Jersey. And for a time, it was enough for the federal government, too. In 1992, a nor’easter lashed Ocean Grove, destroying the boardwalk. FEMA quickly stepped in with emergency relief funding, even though the boardwalk technically belonged not to the town of Neptune, but to the Camp Meeting Association.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene damaged a small section of the Ocean Grove boardwalk, and this time FEMA did not help. But no one in Ocean Grove gave much thought to the decision because the affected area was leased to a private fishing club and was not, in any discernible way, “public” land.

Which is why, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of the boardwalk, everyone in Ocean Grove was shocked when FEMA declared that there would be no assistance this time, either. The agency explained that, as a private, nonprofit organization, Ocean Grove was not eligible for federal assistance in rebuilding a “recreational facility”—which is what they dubbed the boardwalk.

FEMA’s decision was a remarkably tortured reading of both precedent and fact. So tortured that it suggests some deeper motivation on the part of the federal government. What happened between the storms in 1992 and 2013 to change the government’s mind about Ocean Grove? The answer is simple: gay marriage.

Methodists tend to be a tolerant bunch, and New Jersey Methodists especially so. In the 1990s, gay Americans began flocking to Asbury Park, just above Ocean Grove, and sparked the gentrification of that failing town. Some of the migratory overflow spilled into Ocean Grove, which now has a sizable gay population itself. By all accounts, these new residents were welcomed into the Camp Meeting Association with open arms.

There was no tension between the Methodist association and gay residents in the late ’80s and early ’90s because very few people in America—even in the leading echelons of the gay-rights movement—had at that point imagined the idea of same-sex marriage. And to the extent that “gay marriage” existed as an abstract concept at all (it emerged in the wake of an aggressive Hawaiian court ruling in 1993), virtually no one thought it should be a constitutional right.

But in the span of just a few years, all that would change, and Ocean Grove would become the site of a small skirmish in the gay-marriage wars. In 2007, an elderly lesbian couple from town, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, sought permission from the association to use a pavilion on the boardwalk for their civil-union ceremony. The association politely declined, explaining that same-sex couplings went against the church’s teaching. The couple filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which promptly revoked the tax-exempt status of the pavilion.

The fight escalated from there. The association filed suit, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund. Bernstein and Paster brought in the ACLU. In the end, the only safe harbor the association could find was changing its policy to disallow all wedding/commitment ceremonies at the pavilion. Bernstein and Paster then held their civil union at the Ocean Grove fishing club, which leases a pier from the Camp Meeting Association, just a few yards down the beach. It is possible to view this outcome as a tremendous act of accommodation on the part of the association—which deprived all couples of the opportunity to marry at the pavilion so as not to single out one same-sex couple. From their comments to the media, Bernstein and Paster seemed to view it as a defeat; they had been hoping for a different sort of accommodation.

Fast-forward to 2013. In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, Ocean Grove requested $2.25 million in funds to rebuild their boardwalk. This initial request was denied, and FEMA announced that it now regards Ocean Grove’s boardwalk as a private, religious “recreational facility” ineligible for federal relief. Thinking there was some misunderstanding, the shellshocked Camp Meeting Association quickly appealed the decision. Their appeal was denied, too.

A second appeal is ongoing, and Ocean Grove is hopeful because they have changed the rationale for the request: They now contend that the boardwalk’s essential purpose is to provide “a public thoroughfare in providing emergency access and life-saving operations,” because FEMA can aid private religious organizations if it’s in the name of public safety. The association hopes that this new explanation will give FEMA enough of a fig-leaf to help them.

But this is legerdemain. The primary purpose of the boardwalk is recreation. The trick is that Ocean Grove provides recreation for everyone. They have public beach access and they pay for lifeguards. It’s not just Camp Meeting members or Methodists who are allowed to use Ocean Grove’s beach. Just as people of any faith are free to purchase homes in Ocean Grove, the boardwalk is indiscriminately open as well.

The problem with Ocean Grove’s new strategy, however, isn’t logic and common sense. It’s that it presumes that FEMA wants a fig-leaf. The people of Ocean Grove are assuming a state of affairs that no longer exists.

Is religious life incompatible with the new American way? A string of jurisprudence dating (at least) from the 1947 Everson case suggests that it is. The innate exclusiveness of religion makes it contrary to modern ideas about individual liberty.

In response, many religious organizations have tried to become, like Ocean Grove, maximally inclusive. Or nearly so: Ocean Grove transformed itself from being a Methodist campsite filled with passionate believers into an ecumenical town that welcomed all comers. Everything was opened to the public. And the only thing Ocean Grove asked in return was that their facilities not be used to celebrate causes directly counter to their beliefs.

For a while, that was enough to placate the forces of modernity. But the sun has now set on that armistice. Both the left and the government—distinctions between the two are perhaps redundant these days—believe that the free exercise of religion must be whittled down to, as President Obama likes to say, a constitutionally guaranteed “freedom to worship as we choose.” In this view, people have a right to believe what they want, so long as they do so in the privacy of their own pew.

Like others before it, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is discovering that this new interpretation does not encompass what the written Constitution sought to protect—the “free exercise of religion,” the right to live in accordance with your beliefs. It’s already seven years since Catholic Charities of Boston closed its century-old adoption service; pluralism as understood in Massachusetts after the legalization of same-sex marriage left no room for an adoption agency committed to Catholic teaching about the family. At this writing, the Little Sisters of the Poor, women who have pledged their lives to their celibate religious vocation, are forced to sue the government to avoid being compelled to pay for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients. Ocean Grove, too, is waking up to the reality that wherever Americans motivated by religious faith once performed services for the public, often as partners of government, the government now intends to force them from the public square.

There’s an instructive bit of dissonance at the heart of the fight over Ocean Grove. Because while the government is trying to force the town to jettison its Christian foundations, this conquest has only a tenuous connection to ideas about liberty.

In 1975—right around the time the state government first started questioning the Camp Meeting Association’s right to run their town—Ocean Grove was designated both a state and national historic district. This allowed the creation, the following year, of a powerful Board of Architectural Review. The architecture in Ocean Grove is indeed glorious, and today an enormous amount of government power is deployed to make sure that the immaculate Victorian structures in town remain just so. Painting a house, putting up a fence, building a garage—these simple actions may take years to be approved, and the community may well forbid them.

In other words, the government’s hostility to tradition and support for personal freedom are in no way absolute. Because while it looks askance at religious convictions, it commands reverence for gingerbread and picket fences. A society so deeply confused about its history can only despair for its future.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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