Point Pleasant Beach Councilman Prays with Audience
Mayor and Council all stand while audience prays
Point Pleasant Beach Councilman Frank Rizzo again said the Lord's Prayer with residents at the beginning of Tuesday night's council meeting, despite a Superior Court judge's order to stop the practice.
Unlike the Jan. 4 meeting where only some of the council members stood as the audience prayed, Mayor Vincent Barrella and all council members stood Tuesday night. Also, it appeared that Councilman Jeffrey Dyer was at times also mouthing the words, but at other moments he seemed not to be saying the prayer.
The prayer followed the Pledge of Allegiance and Mayor Vincent Barrella's announcement that after the pledge, the council and the audience would observe "a moment of reflection" for Lakewood Police Officer Chris Matlosz who was killed while on duty on Jan. 14.
After the meeting, Barrella was asked why he had apparently changed his mind about standing during the prayer, compared to the Jan. 4 meeting when he did not stand.
He said he had stood not because the prayer was being said, but in honor of Matlosz.
Matlosz, 27, was a Manchester resident and Howell High School graduate.
Judge Vincent Grasso, sitting in Superior Court, Toms River, had issued a temporary injunction last month against the council praying while in session until the larger case is resolved. That case started when Point Pleasant Beach resident Sharon Cadalzo sued the borough for saying a sectarian prayer that shows preference for certain religions.
Barrella said after Tuesday night's meeting, "We need to get this case resolved." He said he has tried in vain to meet with Grasso and the American Civil Liberties Union, but that Grasso has declined.
The ACLU, representing Cadalzo, is seeking reimbursement of about $40,000 in legal fees and is expecting to appear again before Grasso on Feb. 4 on that matter.
On Wednesday, the ACLU released the following prepared statement: "We're continuing to monitor the situation and disappointed to hear that the Point Pleasant (Beach) leadership continues to show disregard for the (NJ) Constitution and for our nation's principles of religious freedom," said Frank Corrado, an ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney who is working on the case.
When Rizzo was asked after the Jan.4 meeting if he had said the prayer with the audience, he said, "I said it to myself. I was just mouthing the words."
When asked if he was concerned that he may be in violation of the temporary injunction, Rizzo said, "That would be if I was saying it out loud. I was saying it to myself. That's ok. "
"I wonder who gave him that legal advice," said Barrella on Jan. 5, when asked to comment on Rizzo's statement. "I would hope that if Judge Grasso is incensed at Councilman Rizzo's action, that he direct his anger not at the entire council or people of Point Pleasant Beach, but at Councilman Rizzo. The court order clearly precludes council from engaging in sectarian prayer or religious practices."
Does that mean Rizzo violated the injunction?
"That's as far as I'm going to go," Barrella said.
On Dec. 17, Grasso ordered a temporary injunction against the council saying the prayer, or expressing any other prayers using references only used by some religions. That would include saying "Jesus" or making the Sign of the Cross.
The injunction stands until there is a resolution to a lawsuit brought by Cadalzo, a borough resident who sued, saying that the council's recitation of the Lord's Prayer at meetings was a violation of her civil rights based on the New Jersey state constitution.
Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued successfully before Grasso that the council's expression of the Lord's Prayer violates the state constitution which prohibits a public governing body from saying any prayers at meetings that show preference for any specific religions.
When LoCicero was asked on Jan. 5 if Rizzo had violated the court order, she would only say, "We're monitoring the situation and considering our next move."
The Borough Council's old policy called for the clerk to read the Lord's prayer aloud as each meeting began. Point Beach's new policy of allowing council members to take turns at meetings saying a prayer or thought of their choosing isn't better, LoCicero has said.
Grasso agreed with the ACLU that the policy violates the state Constitution by allowing each council member to choose a prayer, thereby leaving the door open to sectarian prayers, or prayers that are specific to only certain religions.
For example, at a meeting in November, Councilman Jeffrey Dyer, in closing a prayer, said "Jesus" and made the Sign of the Cross, the ACLU argued.
LoCicero has said that based on the state constitution and prevailing case law, the ACLU has no objection to a governing body holding a moment of silence or saying prayers that use only references that are broad enough to apply to all religions, such as "God" and "Father."
Council will have to decide whether to appeal the injunction and fight the lawsuit, to limit prayers to those that are not specific to certain religions or to simply observe a moment of silence, as council did at its reorganization meeting on New Year's Day, Jan. 4 and Tuesday night.
In addition to paying for its own legal fees incurred so far, the borough may also have to reimburse the ACLU about $42,000 in legal fees, Dyer said at the Jan. 4 meeting.
"If we win an appeal, we won't be on the hook for that," he told the audience. "But if we lose, we might be."
"We would be on the hook if Grasso says we're on the hook," Barrella said.
LoCicero said on Jan. 5 that the $42,000 is only for legal fees for the first suit filed, based on the council's initial policy. That amount does not include any legal fees incurred since the second law suit was filed, including preparation and time to prepare for last month's hearing before Grasso.
During the Tuesday council meeting, Dyer said, "The ADF is committed to paying every dime if we appeal this," Dyer said, referring to the Alliance Defense Fund, a national organization that wants the borough to appeal Grasso's decision and battle the lawsuit.
However, Barrella said on Wednesday that while ADF is willing to pay the fees of the borough attorney to continue fighting the law suit and injunction, it is not willing to pay any legal fees that the ACLU may successfully seek to be reimbursed.
"So the ADF is willing to bet our money that they're right," Barrella said. "I don't think it's best for Point Pleasant Beach to be the battlefield where the ACLU and ADF are fighting because it's Point Pleasant Beach that will be left with the scars.
"I'm not advocating capitulation," he continued. "But I think we need to sit down with Grasso and the ACLU and work this out."
Brett Harvey, ADF senior legal counsel, flew in from the group's headquarters in Arizona to meet with council on Jan. 5. Harvey, the mayor and council and Borough Attorney Kevin Riordan discussed the issue in a lengthy executive session before the regular meeting which started at 8:09 p.m. instead of the advertised time of 7:30 p.m.
In addition, Riordan and Dyer had a significant private discussion with Harvey after the meeting. While Dyer has been one of the staunchest proponents of continuing the legal battle, Hennessy and Rizzo also said after the meeting on Tuesday night that council should appeal.
Dyer had said, after Grasso's decision, that he believes that the majority of borough residents believe in Jesus Christ and, therefore, their elected officials should be permitted to say prayers at the openings of meetings that reflect those beliefs.
"I wouldn't have any problem with the township committee in Lakewood opening their meetings with a Jewish prayer because they have a large Jewish population," Dyer said. "Or Edison opening meetings with a Hindu prayer because they have a large Indian population.
Riordan had argued in vain in court that the policy passes state constitutional muster because by giving various council members opportunities to say a prayer or other personal expressions, sectarian prayers would not be said at every meeting.
"A clearly sectarian prayer repeated over and over would raise questions," Riordan told Grasso.
However, Riordan continued, when the policy allows council members to take turns at meetings "to speak their conscience" it will not lead to sectarian prayers being recited at all meetings.
He argued that case law supports policies that allow words such as "God" and "Heavenly Father," so the borough policy allowing for prayers that mention "Jesus" and call for the Sign of the Cross should also be allowed, especially since those sectarian prayers will not be said at every meeting.
Grasso, looked at Riordan and said, "So if they say it once, it's ok, but if they say it all the time it's not?"