By Dana Howell (Research Librarian and Archivist)
Ocean Grove is a charming beach community nestled between Asbury Park and Bradley Beach. Originally a Methodist camp, it has grown to attract residents from all religions and walks of life. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting has owned the land since 1870, later to include the boardwalk and pavilion. The community attracted national attention when this pavilion became the focus of a discrimination complaint.
Ocean Grove residents Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster have been a couple since 2000. Harriet was an educator for 34 years; Luisa was a librarian. They were active with the organization Garden State Equality, advocating for LGBTQ rights such as marriage equality. Due in part to their efforts, the Civil Union Act was passed in 2007. Already in a domestic partnership, the couple decided to enter into a civil union for the extra rights it afforded them. As Luisa put it, “We thought that was the best we were going to get!”
They chose September 30th, 2007 to have a small ceremony on the boardwalk. The Ocean Grove pavilion was beautiful and was a popular location for many different types of ceremonies, including Hindu, Jewish, and secular. The couple handed in their application and rental fee. Within an hour, they received a phone call notifying them that their application had been denied, as a same-sex union violated the Methodist Camp Meeting’s religious beliefs. It did not occur to them that they would be turned down, given the variety of ceremonies held there. They did not want to cause strife within their community and refused to sue the Camp Meeting, as they were not interested in monetary damages. They were looking for fairness. As the community began to hear of the problem, it mobilized into a grass-roots movement called Ocean Grove United, in which hundreds of people joined to support the couple. Eventually, a civil rights complaint was filed.
As of 1989, the pavilion received tax-exempt status as part of the NJ Green Acres program, which gave the tax break in return for a “public use” designation. The issue at stake was not the violation of the Camp Meeting’s religious rights, but rather Harriet and Luisa’s civil rights. If the pavilion was designated for public use, it had to be rented to everyone without discrimination. The ACLU joined in the couple’s defense. The case went through two federal courts and, after five years, Harriet and Luisa prevailed. From that point on, the Camp Meeting banned all weddings and ceremonies at the pavilion.
When the Marriage Equality Act was passed in 2013, the ACLU graciously hosted a wedding for Harriet and Luisa in appreciation for their hard-fought battle. Ocean Grove United is still a strong organization, and they remain community-focused. When Superstorm Sandy destroyed their boardwalk, the group organized a huge fundraiser for the restoration. They worked together with the Camp Meeting for the good of the community. Harriet frames the relationship by saying, “We’re friendly. We don’t hate them...they don’t hate us...we just don’t see eye to eye.”
To hear their full oral history interview: https://archive.org/details/harrietbernsteinandluisapastor
To visit our Digital Diversity Project: https://sites.google.com/prod/view/mchaoralhistoryproject/home