Point Beach to Settle Lawsuit with ACLU After Changing Prayer
Council now using a prayer not specific to any religion
The Point Beach Mayor and Borough Council is expected on Tuesday night to approve a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding the council's old and new prayer policies.
A split council had voted narrowly on May 10 to authorize Special Counsel Kevin Riordan to settle the case with the ACLU.
Councilmen Sean Hennessy and Jeff Dyer had voted no and Councilman Frank Rizzo was absent.
Now Municipal Clerk Maryann Ellsworth reads a prayer that does not use words such as "Jesus" or other references specific only to certain religions and is similar to an invocation used in Metuchen.
Riordan, now as "special counsel," is still handling the case for the borough because he was the borough attorney last year when two lawsuits regarding the prior prayer policies were filed against the borough.
The May 10 vote led to attorneys for both sides reaching an agreement that was approved on May 16 in Superior Court, Toms River.
"We have successfully resolved the case," said Jeanne LoCicero, Deputy Legal Director for the ACLU-NJ on Wednesday.
Now it just has to be approved by council as part of a consent resolution on Tuesday's agenda, said Ellsworth.
The May 10 vote follows a council decision to start opening meetings with a prayer that does not use language used only by a specific religion.
The council unanimously passed a resolution at its March 29 meeting to adopt a policy using a prayer that is consistent with court rulings.
That means choosing a prayer that is general enough to not show preference for any specific religion, in compliance with the state Constitution.
Sharon Cadalzo, a Jewish Point Beach resident, had objected to the council's former policy of saying the Lord's Prayer because it is specific to Christian religions.
She filed a lawsuit, but then dropped it when it appeared the council was going to use prayers not specific to certain religions.
However, when it became clear the new policy left the door open for such sectarian-specific prayers to sometimes be used, she filed a second lawsuit, which is the one that was just settled.
After the court put its stamp on the settlement on May 16, Cadalzo said, "I am pleased that this matter is resolved and that the council ultimately decided to open its meetings in a way that respects the diversity of beliefs that exists in Point Pleasant Beach."
The Beach must pay $11,200 of the $37,989.30 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sought for reimbursement of legal fees incurred in the first lawsuit, according to a Feb. 15 decision issued by Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso, sitting in Toms River.
LoCicero said the ACLU does not charge its clients, so the Beach will reimburse fees directly to the ACLU.
"On the fee award, my understanding is that the borough is planning to pay us at the start of its fiscal year in July," LoCicero said.
Cadalzo filed the first lawsuit last Sept. 16 to challenge the prayer practice under the state Constitution, which provides that "there shall be no establishment of one religious sect in preference to another" and pursuant to the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, as noted in Grasso's decision.
At its next meeting on Sept. 28, the council halted its longstanding practice and substituted a "moment of silence," Grasso noted in his decision.
Cadalzo then dropped her lawsuit.
At a meeting in October, the council held another "moment of silence" instead of a prayer, the decision says.
"Both moments of silence were disrupted by protestors," Grasso wrote in his decision.
The council then passed a new "Policy Regarding Opening Invocations Before Meetings of the Borough of Point Pleasant Beach Council."
"Following the adoption of this policy, at the next council meeting on November 9, following the Pledge of Allegiance, the mayor introduced Councilman Dyer who closed his prayer by invoking 'Jesus Christ,' " the decision says.
"Plaintiff asserts that she remains distressed by the continued sectarian prayers that the Borough has sponsored or permitted, as well as by the new policy that permits the same," the decision states.
Consequently, on Nov. 9, the ACLU, on behalf of Cadalzo, filed a second lawsuit, which was just settled and, it's expected, will be approved on Tuesday night.
The ACLU can also seek reimbursement of legal fees for that second lawsuit.
On Dec. 17, Grasso concurred with the ACLU's position that the secular prayers said by elected officials at their public meetings violate the state Constitution and ordered a temporary injunction against council members continuing that practice.
However, Grasso had also emphasized at court hearings in December and February that more general prayers that are not specific to certain religions would be fine.
LoCicero had also repeatedly said that the ACLU will not challenge non-sectarian prayers or a moment of silence.