POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. - This Shore town must cease its practice of allowing individual Borough Council members to say a prayer before meetings, a judge ruled Friday in a decision unlikely to end a dispute that has inspired vigorous debate among residents and advocates.
The ruling by Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso effectively voided a recent policy by the Borough Council in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Jewish resident who objected to the council's practice of reading the Lord's Prayer before meetings.
The lawsuit was dropped when the council agreed to discontinue reading the Lord's Prayer and have a moment of silence instead. During two meetings this fall, some audience members stood and recited the prayer during the silent period.
The council then adopted a policy that allows an individual council member to give an invocation "in his or her capacity as a private citizen, and according to the dictates of his or her own conscience." Some council members chose to make invocations with religious overtones, and the ACLU sued again.
The policy "permits and, arguably, encourages a sectarian message" with no guidelines, Grasso said in granting the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction nullifying the policy while the lawsuit is pending. A prayer at a governmental session "is contrary to the role of secular government," Grasso added.
"We're pleased the borough won't be able to continue its unconstitutional policy," ACLU New Jersey legal director Jeanne LoCicero said.
Point Pleasant Beach attorney Kevin Riordan said he was disappointed by the decision but said the borough would review the policy and consider returning to the moment of silence before meetings.
Council member Jeffrey Dyer, who gave an invocation last month that mentioned Jesus, framed the issue in terms of religious freedom.
"I'm not fighting for just a Christian prayer. I believe we have the right to pray," Dyer said. "I'm very disappointed. We aren't allowed, as government officials, to force one religion on others, and I don't think what we were doing does that."
A return to the moment of silence could intensify the dispute, particularly if competing groups tried to recite prayers at the same time, for example.
Riordan contended that the ACLU demanded that the council eject audience members who recited the Lord's Prayer, an action he said the council was not prepared to take.