Lesbian couple holds
ceremony on a pier after use of pavilion
In the end, love was
By Nawal Qarooni,
NJ.com, Monday, September 17, 2007
Two Ocean Grove women at the center
of a growing legal tangle yesterday were joined in a civil union ceremony held
about three blocks from a seaside pavilion a Methodist group owns and forbade
them from using.
Jan Moore, 71, and Emily Sonnessa, 77, were united on a sunny boardwalk in a
teary ceremony attended by nearly 100 family members and friends, as well as
strangers who simply wanted to support them.
"There's no bitterness whatsoever," said Moore's son, Scott Moore, 41, of Upper
Montclair. "Today is not about legality, it's about celebration."
The women are one of two lesbian couples at the center of a divide between the
Methodist Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and the small oceanfront
community, where many residents are gay and equality flags fly from Victorian
homes. Earlier this year, Moore and Sonnessa sought permission to hold
their summer civil union ceremony in the open-air pavilion. They were denied.
The association also turned down the other Ocean Grove couple, Luisa Paster, 60,
and Harriet Bernstein, 65, prompting the two couples to file a complaint with
the state's civil rights agency.
The matter is before a state mediator. In addition, the camp meeting
association has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming unfair treatment.
A judge is expected to decide that question next month. But by then, even
the second couple likely will be united in a civil union.
Bernstein last night said she and Paster will hold their ceremony in Ocean Grove
in two weeks, though not at the pavilion.
"We scheduled our civil union for a particular date. We have family coming
from all over for it, and we're not going to wait for them," Bernstein said of
Scott Hoffman, the camp meeting association's chief administrative officer, was
unavailable for comment last night.
Earlier in the day, Moore and Sonnessa, both wearing flowing white tunics over
slacks, focused on their happiness and their right to share love, officially
joined, for the rest of their lives. The moment was the culmination of
nearly 38 years.
"I hope everyone sees we're just like everyone else," Moore said after the
ceremony, holding her partner's hand. "We shouldn't have had to wait over
"We're in our 70s -- we don't have much time to wait," Moore joked. "We
weren't going to do it anywhere else because Ocean Grove is our home, it's where
The retired antique dealers fell in love quickly after meeting in New York City,
relatives said. They moved to Ocean Grove in 1992.
The camp meeting association owns all of the land beneath the Ocean Grove
section of Neptune Township, having established it in 1870 as a summer retreat.
Ocean Grove today is approximately 25 percent gay, and many homes, both gay and
straight, display royal blue flags with two yellow parallel strips that
symbolize equal rights. Same-sex couples have long been welcome there and
have been credited with revitalizing it, making the pavilion snub all the more
baffling to the gay community.
"Any time a couple celebrates their love in an area that isn't their choice,
it's like asking the gay community to drink from a separate fountain or to sit
in the back of the bus," said Steven Goldstein, chairman of the statewide gay
advocacy group Garden State Equality. "Today's civil union comes against
one of the most impassioned controversies we've seen in New Jersey in a very
In addition to the pending civil rights complaint, Garden State Equality has
asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to quit providing a tax
exemption to the camp meeting association, contending the land is not available
for public use. A decision on that matter could come today.
Yesterday's ceremony was followed by a reception at Moonstruck, a restaurant in
neighboring Asbury Park.
"They are the perfect pair," Moore's niece, Cristina Silver, 35, of Jersey City,
said of the women. "They complement each other with the right mixture of
dreamer and believer."
For many, the day was a testament that love can beat all odds.
"It doesn't matter where it's happening," said Moore's daughter, Donna Hughes,
46, of Staten Island. "Just as long as it happens. They've been
waiting for this for years."
Though they've held their civil union ceremony, the couple vowed to help others
accomplish what they were unable to do.
"It's going to continue because it's a question of civil rights," Sonnessa said.
"We're going to move forward because it affects other couples."
Nawal Qarooni may be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (732)