A United Methodist camp in Ocean Grove, New Jersey has been the scene of another of the denomination's recent sexuality wars. The camp is composed of a highly-developed beachfront area south of New York City featuring restaurants and shops in space leased out by the Methodist organization governing the property. Several months ago, a lesbian couple attempted to secure a pavilion for a civil union commitment ceremony and were turned down by the camp organization due to their sexual orientation.
The couple responded by filing a complaint with a state agency, claiming that the decision violated state laws about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Supporters have argued that the camp has received large sums of state and federal funding for economic development and therefore must abide by government standards on discrimination. They have also argued that the camp must be open to the public if it is to continue to qualify for a large tax exemption from New Jersey's environmental protection agency.
Last week, a Federal judge handed down an injunction against the state, prohibiting New Jersey from continuing its investigation on whether or not the camp violated anti-discrimination laws.
This dispute teaches us about the voracious, predatory nature of the state. When a church is foolish enough to take funding from the state, it is opening itself up to entanglement by government power. I have heard it said that drug dealers often offer narcotics to non-users for free...in the hope that they may later become addicted and subject to the great demands of the drug dealers. Such is the behavior of government. As Washington said, "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." The end result of churches taking government money is churches becoming controlled by the government. The Ocean Grove Camp Association should never have accepted government funding, nor a special tax exemption for land usage, and is now paying the price for its foolhardiness.
There are, however, attacks that this organization could not have protected itself from. Churches cannot prevent doctrine from being decided in civil courts if the courts force their way into what are entirely internal decisions of religious bodies. This is a horrendous abuse of government power which does indeed violate, as the defendants argue, the First Amendment. Nevertheless, we can expect that some gay rights advocates will use whatever means at their disposal to push their agenda through mainline denominations. That's why I predict that within two years, there will be a successful suit in civil court against United Methodist standards for ordination with regards to sexual orientation.
To those United Methodists who support the legal action against the camp, I say: beware of making use of government power. Just because the state is your friend today does not mean that it will be tomorrow. A government powerful enough to force doctrinal changes on your church that you like is powerful enough to make doctrinal changes that you won't like.