The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and a Landmark Decision in Constitutional Law

Forty years ago today, the Supreme Court decided State v. Celmer, 80 N.J. 405 (1979), a case that arose out of he conviction of defendant on charges of DWI, speeding, and disregarding a traffic signal. The offenses took place in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a town that had been founded by members of what was then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. By state statute, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, an organization of those Methodists, retained title to all land, streets, and other public places in Ocean Grove, and the Association had police powers normally given only to municipalities. One of those powers was to constitute the Municipal Court in which defendant was convicted.

Defendant appealed his convictions, asserting that it violated the First Amendment to have delegated to a religious organization the power to make laws and to constitute the Municipal Court that enforced those laws. As a result, he claimed, his convictions were invalid.

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Pashman, the Supreme Court agreed. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Court said, “at a minimum … precludes a state from ceding governmental powers to a religious organization.” But that is what the Legislature had done here, “in effect transform[ing] this religious organization [the Camp Meeting Association] into Ocean Grove’s civil government.”

The Municipal Court that convicted defendant had been established by an “ordinance” of the Association’s Board of Trustees, and the judge of that court had been appointed by the Association. Thus, “that ‘court’ [was] an improperly constituted tribunal and hence possessed no jurisdiction to determine defendant’s guilt or innocence of the charged offenses.” The convictions thus could not stand.

Justice Pashman took pains to conclude his opinion with an olive branch:

“In closing, we wish to emphasize that our holding today should not be read as impugning the integrity of either the Association’s Board of Trustees or the way of life it has sought to institutionalize in Ocean Grove. We have no doubt that the Board has worked long and hard to establish rules which it earnestly feels will best secure peace, happiness, and tranquility for the community’s inhabitants. The administration of the camp grounds has earned the admiration of many citizens and public officials. Indeed, Ocean Grove is now enrolled in the National Registry of Historic Places.

“This way of life need not be abandoned on account of today’s decision. The Association may continue to adopt rules which it deems necessary to protect Ocean Grove’s unique cultural and spiritual characteristics. The inhabitants of Ocean Grove and indeed all others who so choose remain free to voluntarily abide by those rules. The Board, however, cannot exercise essential governmental functions, make law or force compliance with its rules through the establishment of a municipal court and police department. These are functions which can be exercised only by the people as a whole.”

This was a unique case, unlikely ever to be confronted again. But it is worth remembering, as Ocean Grove continues to be a destination for tourists, attendees at performances (including by such luminaries as Garrison Keillor) at its Great Auditorium, and others.