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A Sunday Controversy Erupts in Jersey Shore

A Sunday Controversy Erupts in Jersey Shore

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ocean Grove, New Jersey, is a resort town known for its quaint Victorian homes and “The Great Auditorium,” a massive wooden structure, completed in 1894, that was originally used to host “camp meetings”—religious gatherings that bring people from various churches together for revivals and other spiritual functions.

Among the preachers who have spoken under its roof have been Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and Booker T. Washington. Secular luminaries such as The Beach Boys, Enrico Caruso, Johnny Mathis, Kenny Rogers, and Ray Charles have performed in “The Great Auditorium.”

For more than 150 years, Ocean Grove has been popular especially among families, with many liking its general Christian atmosphere. There is also the Ocean Grove pier, first built in 1889, which recently reopened after having been damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There has been a fair amount of controversy over the reconstruction because the pier was rebuilt in the shape of a cross, which some say is inappropriate for a public place.

Sunday Closure

But the controversy around the pier isn’t limited to its shape. It’s the boardwalk that the pier juts out from that has caused another recent stir. 

A rule, put in place long ago by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA)—a Methodist group that owns that part of the town—does not allow access to the beach through the boardwalk on Sunday before noon. The nine “step entrances,” access points from the Ocean Grove Boardwalk onto the beach, stay locked until noon each Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

According to a New Jersey media outlet, “The tradition stems from Ocean Grove’s origins as a Christian seaside resort. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association officials said limiting beach access on Sunday mornings improves the ‘religious and secular’ quality of life along its boardwalk.”

In the first 154 years that this Sunday restriction has been in place, it hasn’t been challenged. But now the State of New Jersey claims that the rule violates the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act, which does not allow chain and padlock barriers barring beach access, particularly because it can hinder those with disabilities. Fueling the controversy is rising public sentiment against the OGCMA’s long-time rule. 

Michael Badger, the president of OGCMA, in response to the complaints, wrote the state to argue that “during this 0.5% of the year, the view of the ocean from the OGCMA’s boardwalk and pier is of sublime natural beauty without the visual elements of beach umbrellas, tents, and masses of people.”

Blue Law Connection

What’s a bit fascinating about the Sunday ban is just how rare things like this—that is, banning certain activities on Sunday—are in America today. 

This OGCMA privately enforced ban comes out of a time when strict Sunday-closing government laws dominated the nation, even from before the founding of the country. Not only were people forbidden by their governments from doing certain things on Sunday—hunt, fish, buy or sell, show public affection—in some colonies, the law even required church attendance on Sunday. 

In the strict Anglican colony of Virginia, a 1610 law made absence from church punishable by death upon a third violation. Although no evidence exists of anyone being executed under the law, people were whipped, jailed, and placed in stocks for violating it and other Sunday laws that were prevalent through the colonies and, later, the states.

In fact, the very idea of Sunday sacredness had made it into the U.S. Constitution; that is, the governing document of the United States implicitly recognizes the “sanctity” of Sunday. Article I, section 7, excepts Sundays from the ten days the U.S. President is given to exercise his veto of bills adopted by Congress. That’s how ingrained Sunday-keeping was in the United States.

Rome’s Sunday

Today, Sunday laws sound like something from the era of Prohibition. But though courts no longer uphold Sunday legislation, Sunday laws, the few that remain on the books, are still an attempt to use the power of government to promote a religious practice. And that is always bad.

In the case of Sunday laws, it’s even worse because it’s upholding a religious practice based on mere tradition. From Genesis 2:1?3, the creation of the world; to Exodus 20:8?11, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai; to Jesus in the Gospels, where He emphasized how to keep the seventh-day Sabbath (Matthew 12:11; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9)—the Sabbath in the Bible has always and only been the seventh day, never the first.

In fact, Christians keeping Sunday didn’t start until many years after the foundation of Christianity; it is a Roman Catholic invention. For example, read this quote from a Roman Catholic source:

“Q. Have you any other way of proving that the Church has power to institute festivals of precept? A. Had she not such power, she could not have done that in which all modern religionists agree with her—she could not have substituted the observance of Sunday the first day of the week, for the observance of Saturday the seventh day, a change for which there is no Scriptural authority.” 

Despite its dubious origins, Sunday-keeping had become so ingrained into Christian tradition that about AD 1000, when the Orthodox church split from Rome, and about 500 years later, when the Protestant Reformers did over matters of doctrine, Sunday reverence came right along with them. Even Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been unable to break free from Rome’s Sunday!

The issue with Sunday beach access in Ocean Grove is itself relatively minor, as the land is privately held and property owners typically have the right to control such traffic. The government’s interest here appears to be protecting public accommodation, not enforcing or banning a religious practice. Still, what the courts decide in the dispute may affect religious freedom in unexpected ways.

Either way, the controversy calls our attention to the day when the law will be used to promote religious views—even theologically erroneous ones, like Sunday-keeping. To learn more about the biblical Sabbath and the human tradition of Sunday, see “Who Changed the Sabbath?” 

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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