The Magazine

The Town FEMA Turned Down

The tide goes out on religious liberty

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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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.

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