Christian group temporarily opens beaches it has closed on Sunday mornings as court fight plays out

OCEAN GROVE, N.J. (AP) — For the first time in generations, beachgoers were out on the sand in a New Jersey shore community on the Sunday morning before Memorial Day as a Christian religious group fights the state over its regular beach closures there during Sunday services.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group that established a Christian seaside retreat at the Jersey Shore in 1869, said it had closed its beaches on Sunday mornings during religious services in Ocean Grove for more than a century and a half before the state Department of Environmental Protection accused the group of violating state beach access laws.

The department threatened fines of $25,000 per day.

The association unsuccessfully sought an emergency ruling in its favor, then said last week it would temporarily allow beachgoers access on Sunday this holiday weekend while it continues to fight the court case.

“For 155 years, we have closed our beach on Sunday mornings to honor God — a core pillar of this community since the founding of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association,” the group’s statement says. “We are challenging this order to preserve our property rights and religious freedom.”

The association is a nonprofit Christian entity that owns the beach and the land under all of Ocean Grove’s houses under a charter given to it by the state in 1870. In court papers, it says what the state is trying to do violates U.S. constitutional amendments concerning freedom of religion, the taking of private property, and due process and equal protection.

The association asserts that public access was restricted for a total of 45 hours between each Memorial Day and Labor Day, a policy it called “abundantly reasonable.”

E. VanderBerg, an Ocean Grove resident who had just attended a worship service at the association, said Sunday she was happy to see families out on the sand and to know that “people have a choice.”

"People can worship. People can be with their family. People can enjoy God’s creation, however they choose on the Sunday morning,” she said.

Ocean Grove is part of Neptune Township, just north of Asbury Park and about 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of New York City. The association owns all the land in the community that calls itself “God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore,” including the beaches, which it has kept closed until noon on Sundays while it held worship services.

The Associated Press