Ocean Grove, a New Jersey community in Neptune Township founded by Methodist ministers in 1869 as a “Christian seaside resort” has been warned by state officials that their longstanding tradition of limiting access to their privately owned beach before noon on Sundays during the summer months to accommodate church services and maintain the character of their community is a violation of state law.
A warning letter sent by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on Aug. 10 to the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group that owns all the land in Ocean Grove, says the Christian group cannot use chains and padlock barriers to block beach access on Sunday mornings from Memorial Day to Labor Day because it is a violation of the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act.
“The purpose of this warning is to advise you of the above potential violation to provide you with an opportunity to voluntarily take corrective actions and to engage in discussions with the DEP,” Robert H. Clark, a region supervisor for the state Bureau of Coastal and Land Use Compliance and Enforcement, wrote in a letter made public by the activist group Neptune United.
“Neptune United would like to thank the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) for listening to the concerns of the community. On August 10th, the NJDEP sent the OGCMA the attached ‘Warning,’ informing them that their ‘use of chain and pad lock barriers to deter public access to the beach during daylight hours’ violated state regulations,” the group said in a statement on Facebook on Aug. 18 in response to the warning. “Now that it is known the OGCMA has been put on notice by the NJDEP, we look forward to seeing a barrier-free entry this Sunday morning!”
Neptune United describes itself as “a nonpartisan, community advocacy organization committed to ensuring fairness and equality for all Neptune Township residents and visitors” but not everyone in the community agrees with their targeting of the Christian landowner. One woman, identified as Jody Ann on Facebook, is among several who disagreed with Neptune United’s celebration of the warning and noted that the majority of the community supports the long-held traditions.
“The concerns of the community? I don’t believe you speak for the entire community. I know that the majority are ok with the closures only during the summer. You should be thanking them for building a new pier free of charge to the ‘community.’ Your group is shameless,” she said. “There is plenty of room on the beach. The access is only for a few hours on a Sunday. Leave them alone.”
In an interview with The Christian Post on Tuesday, Michael Badger, president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, said in the 154 years that his group has owned and operated the beach, they have never had an issue with their beach access tradition until 2023 when Neptune United began their activism.
“We have been the owners and operators of this beach in Ocean Grove … for 154 years,” Badger explained. “It is our beach, our lifeguards, our badge checkers, we maintain and operate and repair everything — boardwalk, the pier, and the beach, itself. We make sure it gets cleaned.”
Badger said the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and the NJDEP are in talks to resolve the dispute and agree that the Methodist group has significant support from the community because their tradition also helps to maintain the quality of life in the neighborhood.
“There’s a quality-of-life benefit whether you’re religious or secular. It creates a quieter or more restful environment. “Whether you just want to walk along the boardwalk and see the sublime natural state of the ocean without all of the umbrellas and canopies, blankets of people,” he said. “There’s less traffic, there’s more opportunities for parking for people to just have a breakfast and …. to go to a worship service.”
He explained that everyone who resides or does business in the community through a land lease, “recognizes the rules and regulations and mission of the Camp Meeting Association,” but Neptune United has been trying to undo the character of the community with their activism.
“In January, they [Neptune United], were supporters, among other people, of having resident-only permit parking. And that was designed to create a more exclusive environment that would keep visitors out. The Camp Meeting Association did not support that,” Badger said. “We believe the beauty of nature of the ocean should be available on an equal basis, for all people and that the people who live in Ocean Grove like myself, I’m a resident, should share the beauty of the beach with everyone.”
Badger said it appears that because Neptune Township agreed with the Camp Meeting Association’s position on the question of parking, Neptune United went on to target other issues such as a landmark building in the town with a large cross appearing on Ocean Grove beach badges as part of the association’s logo.
Neptune United also unsuccessfully objected to the group’s building of a $2 million pier in the shape of a cross.
“They saw it as being in the shape of a cross to which we highlighted the benefit of the design because of more viewing angles, more ends for people to be at, more ability for it to be used for oceanographic equipment,” Badger said. “This is just the next element in a series of activities that are anti-Christian in their sentiment.”
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