A Christian group that has called the seaside town of Ocean Grove in New Jersey home for over 150 years is in a battle with state officials and a local group over beach access on Sundays.
The resort town — known as “God’s Square Mile” — has kept its beach closed on Sundays from 9 a.m to noon — a total of 45 hours a year — each summer so that residents can attend church services.
But New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection has issued Ocean Grove a violation letter stating the town is disobeying the law by cutting off access to the ocean, which it deems public property.
Michael Badger, who serves as president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, said the land was purchased by the group 154 years ago.
“You’re on Camp Association land,” he said of the beach. “It is our sand and dunes.”
Badger said the OGCMA purchased the beach in 1887. The area, he said, extends 1,000 feet into the ocean. The beach also has no lifeguards on duty while services are going on.
“We paid for the land into the water,” he said. “The land is indisputably ours.”
A warning letter, dated Aug. 7, was sent to the OGCMA and read, in part, that the organization “cannot limit … public access to any dry sand beach area covered under this permit nor interfere with the public’s right to free use of the dry sand for intermittent recreational purposes connected with the ocean and wet sand.”
The state followed up with a violation notice last week, saying that denying people access to the beach is illegal. In a three-page letter obtained by Religion Unplugged, New Jersey officials said the OGCMA had ignored the prior warning and “failed to, prior to site preparation, record a conservation restriction for public access” as required by the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act.
The OGCMA is a religiously affiliated nonprofit that has owned the land in Ocean Grove — including a part of the beach, boardwalk and pier — since 1869. Ocean Grove, a community of some 3,000 residents, was founded as a tent-revival religious retreat for Methodists during the summer.
Ocean Grove, which is fighting the violation order, is part of Neptune but different than most towns. While residents and businesses can purchase homes and buildings, the OGCMA owns the land and charges a leasing fee.
Badger said the beach is restricted only during 15 Sundays — between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends — and that going after them is a “double standard” after neighboring Asbury Park was allowed to close beach access for days to accommodate a music festival.
“Supporters love what we’re doing, but the other side goes to the government,” he said.
Chris Giammona, who grew up near Ocean Grove, vacations there each summer with his wife Barbara since 2018. He works as an usher during Sunday services, while his wife sings in the choir.
“It’s like heaven on earth,” Giammona said of Ocean Grove. “The community is phenomenal.”
Giammona said beach communities along the Jersey shore have changed over the last few decades, but Ocean Grove has “held on to traditions.”
“You have a lot of people who have moved to the town over the years who are not religious,” he said. “These Christian traditions bother people who are not religious.”
Camp meeting movement and Ocean Grove history
The camp has a rich past as an outgrowth of the camp meeting movement in the United States, when a group of Methodist clergy — led by William B. Osborn and Ellwood H. Stokes — formed the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to develop and operate a summer retreat site on the Jersey shore. The camp became a popular destination for Christians along the East Coast in the post-Civil War years.
Camp meeting is a form of Protestant religious service that originated in Great Britain. It was held for worship, preaching and communion on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century.
Revivals and camp meetings continued to be held by various denominations — promoted primarily by Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian preachers — which led to the development of seasonal cottages for meetings.
In Ocean Grove, tents and an open-air wooden shelter was erected in the 1870s. By the start of the 20th century, the grounds became known as the “Queen of Religious Resorts.”
Residents were expected to follow strict Methodist social norms of the time, which included prohibitions of alcohol, tobacco and dancing.
Ulysses S. Grant visited Ocean Grove during his time in office and made his last public appearance there as U.S. president. Other presidents to speak on the grounds have included James Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon.
Heavyweight boxing champions James J. Corbett and Max Baer and department store magnate F.W. Woolworth were among the celebrities who spent their summers in Ocean Grove.
As Ocean Grove drew more visitors, the construction of the Great Auditorium, which stands to this day, was completed in 1894. Originally designed to accommodate 10,000 people, the theater-style arena has a capacity of 6,250.
In 1975, Ocean Grove was designated a New Jersey and National Historic District as a 19th-century planned urban community. The beach enclave remains the longest-active camp meeting site in the United States.
Latest religious liberty fight
Strained relations with local groups — including a burgeoning LGBTQ+ community in recent decades — are nothing new. In 2007, two lesbian couples had asked to have their civil union ceremonies at the OGCMA’s Boardwalk Pavilion.
In response, the OGCMA filed a federal lawsuit arguing that it would be “thrust into government compelled expressive association with those who promote same-sex civil unions” if forced to allow them at its facilities and “a message consistent with its religious views on marriage and family.”
In 2012, an administrative law judge ruled that the group had violated the state’s discrimination law. As a result, the OGCMA discontinued holding weddings at the pavilion.
The Methodist group has argued that the state needs to respect the group’s religious observations. Earlier this year, the group also rebuilt the Ocean Grove fishing pier, which is shaped like a cross, that was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The American Bar Association defines religious freedom as as “the right to practice or not to practice a religion,” adding that “the Constitution preserves this liberty and requires that all religions, and the beliefs of those who do not subscribe to a religion, be respected.A cross on the Ocean Grove beach has drawn the ire of a local group.
In response, opponents such as Neptune United, which calls itself a “nonpartisan, community advocacy organization” labeled OGCMA a group that engages in “religious radicalization.”
“Despite not obtaining the required permits, violating multiple DEP conditions, and having had exactly zero oversight by Neptune Township, the OGCMA is somehow allowed to have a ‘ribbon cutting and opening’ for a pier that will be walked on by tens of thousands of residents and visitors alike,” Neptune United said in a statement last April. “Unfortunately, Neptune United’s concern is not limited to municipal noncompliance and the underlying safety issues. Each day, Neptune United becomes more and more alarmed by the OGCMA’s blatant disregard for both the community and well-established law.”
Neptune United did not respond to an email seeking comment on its opposition to the OGCMA.
On its website, Neptune United says it comprises “people from Neptune Township, New Jersey. We are homeowners. We are renters. We are business owners. We are friends of Neptune Township. We are united by our passion for and love of Neptune and our desire to maintain the diversity and neighborliness that makes our community so special.”
Tensions erupted on Sept. 3, the final Sunday of the beach season, when a group of residents defied the rules and flocked to the beach that morning. Police were called, but no one was arrested and no citations handed out, authorities said.
“We have been running this area for 154 years and only now are we accused of being radical,” said Badger, who accused Neptune United of wanting to strip Ocean Grove of its nonprofit status. “The purpose of this group and other groups is to oppose our faith. The government has been weaponized to gain control over private property that we allow the public access to.”
Sunday services are held in two places during the summer. The “beach church” — as locals call it — takes place at the Boardwalk Pavilion. The other is held at the Great Auditorium. There are also Bible study groups.
“It’s the best community,” Giammona said. “As a Christian, having all the religious aspects in one place is appealing. It has a lot of things for us to do.”
In a Sept. 12 editorial published by The Newark Star-Ledger, the newspaper argued:
This shore town, with quirky origins as a Christian seaside resort, recently erupted into a raging debate again over the separation of church and state — and while some might view putting a cross on its beach badges or building a $2 million cross-shaped pier as overboard, a local Christian group that owns virtually all the land here may be right that they have the freedom to do that. We’ll leave this to the experts in constitutional law.
But what these folks don’t have is the freedom to break the law and keep people off the beaches. So the state was right to put the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association on notice with a letter warning that, tradition or not, closing the beach during the summer on Sunday mornings — to everyone, Christian or not — is almost surely illegal.
This past January, Badger said, Neptune United was a supporter of implementing resident-only permit parking. The OGCMA opposed the move. Badger said Neptune Township agreed with the association’s position on the parking issue, leading Neptune United to target the group on other matters, including a landmark building featuring a large cross and the group’s building of pier in the shape of a cross.
OGCMA supporters have pointed out that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has been allowed to spend millions to purchase a public beach near his sprawling Hawaii estate — yet Ocean Grove can’t manage its own property as they see fit.
Giammona said the people protesting access to the beach “are trying to fight for a right they think they’re owed.”
Badger said the OGCMA will be fined if it doesn’t comply with the state’s demands in time for Memorial Day weekend, the start of the 2024 summer beach season.
“These trespassers don’t even want us to have a cross on our beach,” he added. “This isn’t just an Ocean Grove issue, but an issue for everyone who wants to display religious symbols on private land.”
Clemente Lisi is the executive editor at Religion Unplugged. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event” and previously served as deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and a longtime reporter at The New York Post. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged
“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”
Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.