Sunday morning beach closure has sparked a religious battle in an area dubbed ‘God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore’.
It’s Labor Day Sunday, the last Sunday of the beach season on the Jersey Shore. The weather is perfect, but the beach is empty.
Hanging from a chain barring entrance to the sand and ocean is a sign notifying visitors that this beach is closed on Sunday mornings until noon. “An Ocean Grove tradition.”
By 10am, a small crowd has gathered on the boardwalk near the entrance to the beach. In an organised act of defiance, one by one, they climb over the chain.
“Don’t be rule-breakers,” says a woman with a sign warning that the beach is private property.
Pausing on her way down to the sand, a protester carrying a beach chair and umbrella turns back and snaps: “Jesus was also a rule-breaker.”
This is the third Sunday in a row of these unprecedented protests. They have been occurring ever since the state of New Jersey notified the church group that owns and operates the beach that it may be in violation of the law – the first time in more than 150 years that the legality of these Sunday closures has been challenged.
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which founded this community in 1869 as a Christian summer retreat, has thus far chosen to ignore the warning letter.
Just like it has ignored complaints over the relatively new requirement that residents and visitors purchase and wear badges with crosses printed on them to gain access to the beach. And just like it ignored complaints about its controversial decision earlier this year to rebuild the local fishing pier in the shape of a 152m cross.
In recent weeks, this sleepy hamlet of barely 3100 residents has become a testing ground for that most basic of American values: separation of church and state.