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Shore prayer dispute is back

The latest fight over Point Pleasant Beach's policy heads to court Friday.

POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. - The weather is chilly and the summer crowds are a distant memory in this small Shore town, but the arrival of winter has not cooled debate over a First Amendment dispute that has produced two lawsuits, fractures in friendships, and a dash of civil disobedience.

For years, the town clerk began Borough Council meetings by reading the Lord's Prayer. But a resident's complaint led to a lawsuit that was dropped in October when the town agreed to a moment of silence instead, then reemerged after the town said council members could offer their own invocations.

The matter is scheduled to be heard Friday in state Superior Court, where a judge will decide whether to block the prayers while the lawsuit is pending.

Supporters of the prayer blame the dispute on political correctness run amok. Opponents say individual rights are being trampled.

"You go around town, and everybody seems to have a strong opinion on it," said Lisa Muller, a longtime Point Pleasant Beach resident.

The dispute drew a New York television crew to the council's Nov. 30 meeting. As the cameras rolled, Councilman Raymond Cervino stood up and intoned, "God, we beseech you to provide us with the wisdom to make the correct decisions on this night and all the days going forward. In your name, amen." He then crossed himself.

Cervino, a council member since 2007, called the dispute "political correctness out of control."

"The majority, to me, still means something," he said. "I think whatever the majority decides, that's the way I'm going to go."

The publicity came as something of a surprise to Sharon Cadalzo, who brought the matter to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. Cadalzo, who is Jewish, has lived in Point Pleasant Beach since 2000, was a municipal employee for much of that time, and has attended numerous council meetings.

She began sitting while others stood during the Lord's Prayer, an action that produced some comments but none she considered threatening or confrontational.

Word of the lawsuit changed that. Her friends were supportive, Cadalzo said, but some acquaintances stopped speaking to her.

"I just thought having somebody recite the Lord's Prayer at a public meeting was inappropriate," she said last week. "I can't believe it's become a big thing. I thought it would go away."

After the council agreed to replace the Lord's Prayer in response to the first lawsuit, filed in September, several members of a local church - including at least one in friar's robes, Cadalzo said - stood and recited the Lord's Prayer during the moment of silence.

The council then allowed an individual member to give an invocation of his or her choosing at each meeting, and the ACLU sued again.

Borough attorney Kevin Riordan said the town was on firm footing based on a 1980s case in Middlesex County that allowed similar individual invocations. ACLU lawyer Frank Corrado said any policy that allowed for sectarian prayer violated the Constitution.

Brett Harvey of the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona organization that specializes in First Amendment issues and is advising Point Pleasant Borough, said federal courts had focused on a prayer's context, not its content, to decide constitutionality.

Courts have held that a prayer such as those given before sessions of Congress is allowable as long as its purpose is not to proselytize or influence nonbelievers, he said.

Whichever way the legal precedents are interpreted, Corrado said, the idea that the majority can dictate is misguided.

"The Bill of Rights is expressly anti-majoritarian," he said. "Certain individual rights can't be overruled, and one of them is establishment of religion. It wouldn't matter if 99.9 percent of the population wanted it. It would still violate the Constitution and be impermissible."