The Point Beach Council voted Tuesday night to to the American Civil Liberties Union, which battled the borough over its former policy of opening meetings with the Lord's Prayer.
The vote, supported by all but Councilman Jeff Dyer, apparently that has dragged on since September.
"I'm glad it's done," said Sharon Cadalzo, the resident who sued the borough for saying the Lord's Prayer because it is used only by some religions. "I never expected it to take this long."
Councilman Frank Rizzo was absent for the third consecutive meeting due to an ongoing health issue.
The case has inflamed strong feelings among some residents who feel the ACLU, and the Superior Court judge who supported their argument, are unjustifiably restricting freedom of speech.
But a governmental body showing preference for one religion over others is in violation of the state Constitution that seeks to make all residents feel their elected officials represent them and are not showing preference for one religion over others.
Ultimately, Point Beach had to abandon the Lord's Prayer and is now using a prayer, read by Borough Clerk Maryann Ellsworth, with more general language that asks for guidance to make good decisions best for the town.
When asked about the new prayer being used, Cadalzo said, "It's fine."
When asked how her fellow residents have felt about her litigation, Cadalzo, standing in the hallway of the second floor of Borough Hall, pointed into the meeting room where the meeting was still going on and said, "There are people in there who used to be my friends who won't say hello to me now. But it's fine."
"She's been ostracized," said her husband, Luis Cadalzo. "But she's also had a lot of people come up to her in town and support her. But they won't come here and say that," he said, pointing to the meeting room.
"They're afraid to identify themselves," Cadalzo said. "But a lot of people have been supportive. I've heard from groups as far away as Texas who are trying to do things like this. One guy told me he used to live here in the '60s and, after hearing about what I was doing, he donated to the ACLU."
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 Dyer had voted no and Rizzo had been absent.
Now 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," was 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 last Wednesday.
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.
Cadalzo, a Jewish resident, had 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 is paying $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 last week.
She said the ACLU will not seek reimbursement of legal fees incurred in the second lawsuit.
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 protesters," 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.
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.