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Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church v. Vespa-Papaleo

November 5, 2007

OCEAN GROVE CAMP MEETING ASSOCIATION OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH PLAINTIFF,
v.
J. FRANK VESPA-PAPALEO, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DIRECTOR OF THE NEW JERSEY DIVISION ON CIVIL RIGHTS, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pisano, District Judge

OPINION

Presently before the Court is a motion by Defendant, J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, Director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Defendant seeks dismissal of this action based upon the abstention principles set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed. 2d 669 (1971) and subsequent cases. For the reasons below, the Court find abstention under Younger to be appropriate. Accordingly, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed.

I. Background*fn1

Plaintiff, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church (the "CMA"), is a Christian ministry that was formed in 1869 for the purpose of creating a permanent Christian camp meeting community on the New Jersey shore. Compl. at ¶ 5. The CMA owns all of the land in the seaside community of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, which consists of approximately one square mile. Id. at ¶ 8. Much of this land is leased to homeowners and businesses, but the CMA retains control over other portions of the land, which include the entire beachfront, the boardwalk, several parks and a number of facilities and structures. Id.

At the center of the issue in this case is a wood-framed oceanside pavilion that is located on Ocean Grove's boardwalk on Ocean Avenue (the "Boardwalk Pavilion"). Id. at ¶ 10. The Boardwalk Pavilion is used by the CMA for a variety of events, including, at times, worship services, bible school programs, gospel music programs and a summer band concert series. Id. at ¶ 12. When not hosting an event, the open-air pavilion is open to the public, who can sit, rest, and enjoy a respite from the sun or otherwise take shelter from the elements. Id. at ¶ 14. Also, although the parties appear to dispute the extent to which the Boardwalk Pavilion had been rented out for secular purposes, prior to the present dispute the Boardwalk Pavilion had been available for rental by the public for wedding ceremonies. Id. at ¶ 15, 23.

In March of 2007, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, residents of Ocean Grove, applied to rent the Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union ceremony. Id. at ¶ 19. The CMA denied the application "because the requested use was inconsistent with the [CMA's] religious beliefs." Id. at ¶ 20. Ms. Burnstein then reached out to the President of the CMA and asked to have the matter brought before the CMA Board of Trustees for consideration. After efforts to resolve the issue with the CMA failed, see id. at ¶¶ 20-21, Ms. Burnstein and Ms. Paster filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ("DCR") alleging that the CMA illegally discriminated against them by denying their request to rent the Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union ceremony. Id. at ¶¶ 24-25. Shortly thereafter, another Ocean Grove couple who had also requested use of the Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union ceremony, Janice Moore and Emily Sonnessa, filed a similar complaint with the DCR based on the denial of their request. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30.

On August 13, 2007, Plaintiff filed the present action. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant, "[b]y accepting and investigating discrimination complaints against the Camp Meeting Association, specifically discrimination on the basis of civil union status based on the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination," has applied New Jersey law in violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights of free speech, freedom of expressive association and free exercise of religion. Id. at ¶¶ 36, 43, 48. Plaintiff also claims that its First Amendment rights have been violated because it fears that Defendant may require the CMA to permit civil unions to take place in the Boardwalk Pavilion. Id. ¶¶ 37, 44, 49. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as nominal damages.

On August 25, 2007, Plaintiffs, by way of an Order to Show Cause, filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to enjoin Defendant from continuing its investigation regarding the two discrimination complaints. Two days later, Defendant filed the present motion to dismiss the complaint. The parties thereafter fully briefed both motions. Oral argument for both motions was held on October 4, 2007, at which time the Court denied Plaintiff's motion for injunctive relief*fn2 and reserved decision on this motion to dismiss. This decision follows.

II. Legal Discussion

Federal district courts have "discretion to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over a particular claim where resolution of that claim in federal court would offend principles of comity by interfering with an ongoing state proceeding." Addiction Specialists, Inc. v. Township of Hampton, 411 F.3d 399, 408 (3d Cir. 2005). Defendant asserts that the instant case presents just such a situation where abstention is warranted. Specifically, Defendant argues that the abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed. 2d 669 (1971) and its progeny -- known as "Younger abstention" -- requires the Court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction in this case. The Younger abstention doctrine reflects "a strong federal policy against federal-court interference with pending state judicial proceedings absent extraordinary circumstances." Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 431, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 2521, 73 L.Ed. 2d 116 (1982). As the Third Circuit has noted, "Younger abstention arose primarily from 'the notion of 'comity,' that is, a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways.'" Gwynedd Properties, Inc. v. Lower Gwynedd Township, 970 F.2d 1195 (1992) (quoting Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971)).

In support of his motion, Defendant cites the Supreme Court case of Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, 477 U.S. 619 (1986), which, according to Defendant, "plainly requires that this Court to abstain from adjudicating this case." Def. Brf. At 1. Indeed, Ohio Civil Rights Commission is directly on point with the present situation. In that case, the plaintiff, a religious school, was accused of employment discrimination by one of its teachers. The teacher, who had become pregnant, was advised during the school year that the school would not renew her contract for the following year because of the school's "religious doctrine that mothers should stay home with their preschool age children." 477 U.S. at 623. When the teacher consulted a lawyer and challenged the non-renewal decision based on state and federal discrimination laws, she was suspended and then terminated for her failure to abide by the school's policy of "resolving disputes internally through the Biblical chain of command." Id.

The teacher filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission alleging that the non-renewal decision constituted unlawful sex discrimination. Like the Plaintiff in the present case, during the pendency of the state administrative proceedings, the religious school in Ohio Civil Rights Commission brought an action in federal court seeking an injunction against the state proceedings on the ground that the First Amendment prohibited the Civil Rights Commission from exercising jurisdiction over it or sanctioning it for engaging in employment discrimination. The federal district court exercised its jurisdiction over the case, but ultimately the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court should have abstained from the case under Younger. Id. at 628-29. The Supreme Court found that all of the requirements for Younger abstention were met and, notably, that "the Commission violate[d] no constitutional rights by merely investigating the circumstances of [the teacher's] discharge." Id. at 628.

The Supreme Court has set forth a three-part test that this Court must apply in order to determine whether abstention is proper. Younger abstention is appropriate when: (1) there is a pending state proceeding that is judicial in nature; (2) the proceeding implicates important state interests; and (3) there is an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding for the plaintiff to raise its constitutional challenges. Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed. 2d 116 (1982). When all three of these factors are met, abstention is proper unless "(1) the state proceedings are being undertaken in bad faith or for purposes of harassment or (2) some other extraordinary circumstances exist, such as proceedings pursuant to a flagrantly unconstitutional statute, such that deference to the state proceeding will present a significant immediate potential for irreparable harm to the federal interests asserted." Schall v. Joyce, 885 F.2d 101, 106 (3d Cir. 1989). Plaintiff has not asserted the existence of --and the Court does not find there to be -- ...


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