Sometime after Hurricane Sandy swept across the Jersey Shore, FEMA money swept into the state, helping to rebuild municipalities and morale. But one New Jersey town isn’t receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency funds despite having sustained millions in damage, losing half its boardwalk; its whole pier; entire buildings; and part of the roof of its Taj Mahal, an ornate, 6,250-seat auditorium built in 1894. But while it has this damage, it also has, from FEMA’s perspective, another problem.
The locale is Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and it’s actually a place where I’ve spent some time. But its plight is also a sign of the times — it’s one town that serves as a microcosm of one civilization’s transition from faith to indifference to anti-Christian animosity.
It wasn’t always like this. Founded by a group of pastors in 1869 and governed by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church (CMA), “OG,” as its fans might call it, was just following a long tradition of faith-based American communities. The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last does a good job recounting its history, writing:
In 1870 the New Jersey state legislature granted the Camp Meeting Association a charter, giving them the power to hold and maintain their property, establish infrastructure, and even create a police force — all in the name of setting their land aside for “the perpetual worship of Jesus Christ.”
In 1879, the state created a new township, called Neptune, and placed Ocean Grove within its boundaries. But while Ocean Grove paid some taxes to Neptune, they continued to provide their own city services and retained independent authority over local laws.
Not surprisingly, OG had different rules than did surrounding communities. Horses and, later on, cars, were banned from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday; alcohol wasn’t sold; the town’s beach was closed on Sundays for most of its history; and the CMA owned all land within its boundaries. And, as Last put it, “The state tolerated these local laws because the town would not have existed without its religious foundation, which had, for generations, existed with the explicit approval of the government. It was, all in all, a happy state of affairs.”
The efforts to chip away at the town’s autonomy began early, but were initially beaten back. After the New Jersey state legislature incorporated OG in 1920, the state appeals court ruled the move an unconstitutional violation of the free exercise of religion, leaving the CMA in charge of government. Yet this changed in 1976 with OG’s arrest and conviction of a drunk driver named Louis Celmer, Jr. Celmer appealed the decision, claiming that the “very fact of Ocean Grove’s police … was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. He fought all the way to the state supreme court, which wrote a sweeping decision in his favor ordering Ocean Grove to turn over all municipal powers to Neptune,” writes Last.
And that was that. There was now a new normal: The CMA had been reduced to essentially a homeowner’s association, and its ordinances had become by-laws. Yet this satisfied the secular powers that be — for a time.
FEMA had provided OG with disaster relief in 1992 when a nor’easter destroyed its boardwalk, which OG had always made available for public use.