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Fox News Misinforms About New Jersey Civil Union Lawsuit

January 13, 2012 6:05 pm ET by Carlos Maza

On Thursday,  New Jersey judge Solomon Metzger ruled that a church group – the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) – had violated the state’s non-discrimination laws when it prevented a lesbian couple from conducting a civil union ceremony on its Boardwalk Pavilion in 2007.

Fox News – which has a history of promoting stories that depict LGBT equality as a threat to religious liberty – was quick to publicize the decision on its Fox Nation website:

[Fox Nation, 1/13/12]

The Fox Nation post linked to an article by Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes, accompanied by a similarly misleading title:

[Fox News Radio, 1/13/12]

After briefly describing the decision, Starnes devoted the majority of his article to hyping claims made by Jim Campbell – an attorney with the notoriously anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund:

“According to their Book of Discipline, they cannot host same sex unions on their property,” Campbell told Fox News & Commentary. “He is saying they engaged in wrongdoing under the law simply for refusing to use the property in a way that would violate their religious beliefs.” [...]

But Campbell said the ruling could have troublesome implications for religious groups across the state –including the possibility that churches may be forced to host same sex unions in their houses of worship.

“That’s the danger of this ruling,” Campbell said. “It could be applied to other religious entities and it could be applied to other places of worship.”

He said he hopes New Jersey’s director of civil rights will reconsider the ruling and find that religious groups have a right to use their private property in a way that’s consistent with their beliefs. [...]

“We’ve seen a clash over the past five to ten years that’s building and building where the homosexual legal agenda comes in conflict with religious liberty,” he said. “There’s always been the concern that courts would incorrectly interpret constitutional freedoms and that’s what we are seeing in this case.”

Starnes didn’t quote or interview any proponents of Judge Metzger’s decision. If he had, he might have bothered mentioning some important details about the case:

1. The Pavilion Was A “Public Accommodation” Under State Law.  OGCMA’s Boardwalk Pavilion was considered to be a “public accommodation” under New Jersey law. OGCMA solicited business for the Pavilion by advertising “An Ocean Grove Wedding” to the public at large without specifying any type of religious requirements. OGCMA even applied for a Green Acres real-estate tax exemption for the Pavilion, which requires that the property “be open for public use on an equal basis.”

2. The Religious Group Wasn’t Punished. Although the group lost its real-estate tax exemption for the Pavilion, OGCMA faced no financial punishment for violating the state’s anti-discrimination law. The women who filed the suit against OGCMA did not establish damages for which to be compensated, and Judge Metzger decided that “the finding of wrongdoing should be an adequate redress.” After losing its real-estate exemption, the group “obtained the same benefit by applying for a tax exemption as a religious organization.”

3. The Decision Affirmed Exemptions For Religious Groups. Judge Metzger’s decision explicitly affirmed the idea that religious organizations are exempt from the state’s non-discrimination law, as long as they don’t advertise their property as a public accommodation. From the decision:

As to “free exercise,” the LAD (Law Against Discrimination) is a neutral law of general application designed to uncover and eradicate discrimination; it is not focused on or hostile to religion. To the contrary, it carves away exceptions on behalf of religious organizations. I do not believe that the facts pose a true question of religious freedom... Respondent can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the LAD.  It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.  [emphasis added, internal citations removed for clarity]

Legal disputesespecially ones that involve recently enacted legislationcan be complicated and difficult to explain. The job of real reporters is to describe those disputes clearly and accurately. Running flagrantly misleading headlines and rehashing ideological talking points, believe it or not, isn’t responsible journalism.

It is, however, par for the course at Fox News.  

Previously:

He’s Back: Tony Perkins Makes First Fox News Appearance Of 2012

Fox Dreams Up Media’s Obama “Double Standard” When Discussing Same-Sex Marriage

Liberty Counsel, NOM Fearmonger Over Hawaii Civil Unions Lawsuit