“[T]he roots of the ancient conflict between church and state are religious. Where the state claims to be god walking on earth, the state will claim sovereignty and will seek to control every area of life and thought. A free society becomes impossible." —R. J. Rushdoony
When R. J. Rushdoony wrote those words in 1979, his readers could not have imagined that an American state would ever try to force a church to take part in a public celebration of sin. But he wouldn’t have written them if he hadn’t imagined it.
Today, 28 years later, the state of New Jersey is trying to force a Methodist church to allow homosexual “civil unions” to be performed on church property, in opposition to the church’s religious beliefs. As a federal court hearing looms, the state has punished the church by revoking its tax exemption for the property.
The New York Times recently reported—erroneously—that the church in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, had been stripped of a tax exemption worth $500,000 a year (see “Group Loses Tax Break Over Gay Union Issue” by Jill Capuzzo, New York Times, Sept. 18, 2007). In the same article, the Times reported—misleadingly—that “A federal district court judge refused last month to halt the investigation” by the state into the church’s supposed violation of a lesbian twosome’s “civil rights.”
In fact, the tax exemption on the building is less than $200 a year; and the federal court will hear the church’s case on October 15.
Rev. Scott Hoffman, speaking for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA), set the record straight, but declined to speculate as to why the initial news reports were so inaccurate. “I’ve stopped paying attention to most of the news media,” he said.
The Times story was picked up by other news media around the country and repeated without any immediate fact-check. Several national pro-family advocacy groups ran the story intact, too.
The initial, inaccurate reports have been corrected; but the issue remains.
A Church or a Park?
“It’s not about the money,” Rev. Hoffman said. “It never was.”
The church could, of course, just pay the small amount of tax money and try to carry on the rest of its business as usual—and hope that the state, later on, would not invoke public domain to seize the property.
“We’re exploring various options, but that doesn’t sound like something we would want to do,” Hoffman said.
“The property in question is a section of the boardwalk, about 30 feet by 60 feet, plus the 100-year-old building that’s on it. Its market value isn’t much, but for us, that pavilion is our number-one facility. It provides us with a seaside setting for worship services, and that attracts more churchgoers—people who wouldn’t otherwise attend. It’s our best facility for outreach.
“That’s why it’s worth all this struggle. We see the pavilion as a place of worship, and the state is calling it a place of public accommodation. That’s what our court case is about.”
The church will be asking for an injunction to halt the state’s “civil rights” investigation, while the state will ask for a dismissal of the suit.
The decision to revoke the pavilion’s tax exemption was made unilaterally by a Jersey bureaucrat, Lisa Jackson, the state’s commissioner of environmental protection. The pavilion had been tax-exempt since 1989 under the state’s Green Acres program, which covers the management of open space such as parks and historical sites.
All the rest of the church’s property in Ocean Grove, Hoffman said, has been recertified as tax-exempt.
The church owns all of the property in Ocean Grove. To move there, home buyers lease the land from the church and must sign a document saying they understand the church’s mission, and support it. The lesbian residents who demanded that their “civil union” be performed in the pavilion, and then filed a complaint with the state when the church refused, signed such a covenant.
“We are a welcoming community,” Rev. Hoffman said. “We don’t stop people from moving into our town.”
Now some of those people who were welcomed into Ocean Grove have asked the state to defeat the mission of the church.
A Question of Sovereignty
“Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.”
“The source of authority is always the same,” Hoffman said. And religious liberty, Rushdoony said, “involves, moreover, a denial of the doctrine of state sovereignty.”
At the heart of the Ocean Grove case is not whether a church ought to recognize same-sex “civil unions”—obviously, Biblically, it must not—but the state’s claim to sovereignty over the church.
We recite in our Pledge of Allegiance that the United States of America is “one nation, under God.” But it is clear that the state does not recognize God’s sovereignty. Here a state bureaucrat has, with a stroke of the pen, ruled that a church-owned building where worship services are regularly held is not a church, but something more akin to a picnic ground or municipal softball field.
In support of its “public policy” to allow same-sex pseudomarriages, the state has unleashed its coercive machinery against the church. The mainstream news media has been virtually unanimous in its support of the lesbians against the church. National “gay rights” groups, such as the misnamed Human Rights Campaign, have descended on the small beachfront town, mobilizing demonstrators, providing sympathizers with professionally manufactured flags and lawn signs.
As if all that weren’t enough, the United Methodist Church, nationally and regionally, is laced with clergy and laity who reject God’s teachings against homosexual behavior and who would like nothing better than to see the church in Ocean Grove forced to bow the knee to Baal. These antinomian voices within the church have encouraged the sodomites’ moral aggression.
Christians everywhere should pray for the church in Ocean Grove and exhort its people to stand firm.
The issue has gone beyond “gay civil unions.” With a stroke of the pen, a New Jersey bureaucrat has raised the stakes. At issue now is whether the church can maintain its own sphere of sovereignty, under God, granted to it by the Bible and by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The church in Ocean Grove cannot give in without dealing a crippling wound to religious freedom nationwide.
The state can seize the church’s property. It can fine and jail our leaders. It can even drive us underground, if it comes to that.
The one thing the state cannot take from us is our consent. We have a mighty fortress in our God, in whom we can take refuge.
The church must hold fast, and not give that consent.
 R. J. Rushdoony, “Conflict with the State” Roots of Reconstruction, 1979 position paper, (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 4.
 Rushdoony, 4.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.