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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can a Christian community close the beach on Sunday mornings?

A cross on the beach in Ocean Grove, N.J., where the welcome sign calls the community “God’s Square Mile” and the beach is closed before noon on Sundays, on March 10, 2024. This week, a New Jersey court will wrestle with the beach closure and whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns the property, has the right to impose religiously motivated restrictions on the public. (Hannah Yoon/The New York Times)

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Along the Atlantic coast, about 60 miles south of Manhattan, is a beach town that defies the rowdy image of the Jersey Shore.

In Ocean Grove, where the beach has been controlled by a conservative Christian nonprofit for more than 150 years, no alcohol is sold. The Christian flag, a white banner with a red cross, flies beneath an American flag near the beach. Two wooden crosses stand in the sand. A massive pier in the shape of a cross was unveiled last year.

And perhaps most notably, in Ocean Grove, where the welcome sign calls the community “God’s Square Mile,” the beach is closed before noon on Sundays.

This week, a New Jersey court will wrestle with the beach closure and whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns the property, has the right to impose religiously motivated restrictions on the public.

The issue has roiled the close-knit community since last summer, and in October the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Christian nonprofit to stop blocking Sunday beach access or risk fines up to $25,000 a day. The association has appealed the order.

“Part of the magic of this town is that you can’t do anything you want,” said Sarah Izzo, owner of a craft gift shop on Main Avenue called Serenity by the Sea. “You have to stay within the rules.”

She added, “Other beaches are party towns. This is a different vibe.”

Ocean Grove was established in 1869 as a Methodist camp meeting that served as a summer haven for Christians. More than 150 years later, its rows of Victorian homes include a mix of religious and nonreligious residents of about 3,000 people.

The association, which has its own governing board, maintains control of the land, staffs the beach with lifeguards, and sometimes hosts Christian services in its beachfront pavilion and baptisms on the beach, which is less than a mile long.

The community has been visited by several U.S. presidents and famous Christian leaders, including evangelist Billy Graham and Christian hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Sunday worship is held in the Great Auditorium, a historic wooden hall that seats about 7,000 people. Surrounding the auditorium is a large tent community, where families come in the summer to live in canvas tents connected to side-by-side cabins.

On a recent Sunday in her three-story home near the beach, Kristin Tito was scrolling through Facebook debates over the beach issue while eating clam chowder. She said some residents, like herself, are not religious but love the history and the traditions of Ocean Grove.

Tito, whose family has been coming to Ocean Grove since the 1930s, moved there in 1997 and appreciates the community’s quirks.

“I’d love to go to the beach on Sunday morning, but I also love that it’s quieter on Sunday,” Tito said. “I would probably burst into flames if I walked into a church, but I would feel sad if they lost their traditions.”

The association has owned land in Ocean Grove since the state granted its charter in 1870. The organization purchased 11 acres of beachfront for $50 and then purchased an additional 266 acres for $40,000 in 1875, according to documents submitted for the area’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

State officials decided last year that by blocking the beach on Sundays, the association violated the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act, a law based on the “public-trust doctrine,” which gives the government rights to natural resources for the public good.

In its request for a hearing, an attorney for the association argued that the state’s order is an unconstitutional infringement on the association’s religious beliefs and practices. The association’s Sunday beach closure is part of its mission to build and maintain a beautiful seaside community to serve as a place for meditation, reflection and renewal, the attorney, Michael J. Connelly, wrote.

The association argued that it also had secular arguments for beach closure, including giving lifeguards time off, reducing traffic and noise, and allowing visitors to frequent local businesses instead of the beach.

“Regardless of one’s beliefs, spending the morning hours in an unhurried morning stroll on a less crowded boardwalk has emotional, spiritual and bodily health benefits,” Connelly wrote. The president of the association declined to comment on the case.

This is not the first time the state has intervened in Ocean Grove’s operations. The unincorporated community once had its own police force, enforcing blue laws that banned practices like driving, bicycling, swimming and hanging clothes outdoors on Sunday. However, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1979 ruled that Ocean Grove’s government was unconstitutional, saying it violated the First Amendment, which “precludes a state from ceding governmental powers to a religious organization.” Ocean Grove’s municipal power, including its police force, was transferred from the association to Neptune Township, which has a population of about 28,000.

And the association has gone to court before over the public’s access to its spaces. In 2007, two lesbian couples were denied after they asked to have their civil union ceremonies in its boardwalk pavilion. After a state judge ruled that the association had violated the state’s law against discrimination, it stopped allowing the general public to use the pavilion for weddings.

When Shane Martins bought a home in Ocean Grove in 2019, he appreciated that Ocean Grove had a relatively large gay population. Martins said he followed the beach rules when he first moved there because he respected the long-standing tradition. He grew frustrated, though, by the Christian cross imagery on Ocean Grove’s beach passes, which he believed violated the First Amendment. When the beach is open, anyone above age 11 is expected to display the pass, which costs $95 per adult for the 2024 summer season, so they can show badge checkers at the boardwalk entry points.

The cross-shaped pier that opened last year was the last straw for Martins, and he co-founded a group Neptune United, which has been fighting the association’s beach rules. He and dozens of other people last summer protested by gathering on the beach Sunday mornings.

The association has long avoided paying taxes on its beach by dedicating it to the public in 1989 through the state’s Green Acres Program. Martins believes the association is in violation of the program because it says beach owners cannot restrict the public’s right of access unless it is necessary for maintenance or to preserve natural resources.

“If the camp wants the beach to be private, I am happy for them to be private,” Martins said. “Then they have to pay taxes on it. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

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Apr 30

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Colby Adkins
Colby Adkins
Apr 17

Near the beach, the American flag is flown above the Christian flag, which is a white banner with a red cross.Dordle

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