Can a Christian Community Close the Beach on Sunday Mornings?

Along the Atlantic coast, about 60 miles south of Manhattan, is a beach town that defies the rowdy image of the Jersey Shore.

In Ocean Grove, where the beach has been controlled by a conservative Christian nonprofit for more than 150 years, no alcohol is sold. The Christian flag, a white banner with a red cross, flies beneath an American flag near the beach. Two wooden crosses stand in the sand. A massive pier in the shape of a cross was unveiled last year.

And perhaps most notably, in Ocean Grove, where the welcome sign calls the community “God’s Square Mile,” the beach is closed before noon on Sundays.

Next week, a New Jersey court will wrestle with the beach closure and whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns the property, has the right to impose religiously motivated restrictions on the public.

The issue has roiled the close-knit community since last summer, and in October the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Christian nonprofit to stop blocking Sunday beach access or risk fines up to $25,000 a day. The association has appealed the order.

“Part of the magic of this town is that you can’t do anything you want,” said Sarah Izzo, owner of a craft gift shop on Main Avenue called Serenity by the Sea. “You have to stay within the rules.”

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