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Beach Access Fight Involving Methodist Group May Not Be Resolved In Time For Summer

By Clemente Lisi
ocean grove beach NJ
A cross on the Ocean Grove beach (Photo courtesy of OGCMA)

The religious freedom case pitting a Christian group against local activists over Sunday access to a New Jersey beach may not be resolved in time for this summer.

A hearing — originally scheduled for April 17 — has been postponed and a new date of May 16 set, just two weeks before the traditional start of the summer beach season that takes place over Memorial Day weekend, the Asbury Park Press reported on Tuesday.

Ocean Grove — a resort town known as “God’s Square Mile” — has kept its beach closed on Sundays from 9 a.m to noon from Memorial Day to Labor Day — a total of 45 hours a year — so that residents can attend church services.  

Last year, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection issued Ocean Grove a violation letter stating they was disobeying the law by cutting off access to the ocean, which it deems public land.

Michael Badger, who served as president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association at the time, said the land was purchased by the group over 150 years ago.

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“You’re on Camp Association land,” he told Religion Unplugged last September. “It is our sand and dunes.” 

The Methodist group’s standoff with the state over beach access has divided the town. Defenders have called it a religious freedom case, while activists have countered that it’s an infringement of their rights as beachgoers. As a result, some locals began defying the policy last summer.

The state DEP, in its order, told the group: “Comply with the approved permit and conditions immediately upon receipt of this document. More specifically, immediately cease the use of chain and padlock barriers which prevents public access to the site’s beach.”

The state also threatened to fine the group $25,000 each day the beach is kept closed.

“It is difficult to imagine a private property owner giving the public broader access to its privately owned land,” OGCMA said in court documents.

Members of the group Neptune United, one of the most vocal defying the policy, told the Asbury Park Press: “Neptune United respects the right of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to appeal the October 12, 2023 administrative order issued by the Department of Environmental Protection concerning beach access, however, we remain confident in the finding of the order.”

Last month, Neptune United released a report arguing properties owned by the OGCMA have generally been assessed at a lower value for property taxes compared with similar properties owned by others. As a result, county officials said they are looking into the matter.

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 Christians during the summer.

Ocean Grove 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. Ocean Grove 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. 

Clemente Lisi is the executive editor of Religion Unplugged. He previously served as deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and a longtime reporter at The New York Post.



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3 Responses

    1. The Public Trust Doctrine has been in effect in New Jersey since before the United States existed. Any time someone was allowed to restrict public access of the beach, and the state didn’t enforce PTD, it was choosing to look the other way out of convenience. The state started enforcing PTD more thoroughly in 2020 in part to combat increasingly aggressive efforts by property owners (usually corporations) to block practical beach access in violation of the PTD. This church is one of many organizations being targeted for breaking the law.

      They can charge for parking. They can’t just close the beach.

      1. It actually goes back to Roman and English Common Law. And upheld by SCOTUS in Martin v. Waddell’s Lessee (1842) and Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892).

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