BARNEGAT – Barnegat Mayor Alfonso Cirulli’s controversial comments at last month’s meeting have seemingly divided the town into those who are for and those who are against new legislation Cirulli classified as “an affront to almighty God.”
It was a long night for Barnegat residents who came out to the Sept. 3 Township Committee meeting. Over one hundred members of the LGBTQ community, their allies, fellow activists, parents, and township residents came out to say their piece about Cirulli and the legislation, S1569, which requires the inclusion of LGBTQ history into the school district’s curriculum. The law will take effect during the 2020-2021 school year.
The township meeting room was packed to the brim, residents spilling out of the doorway and standing in groups against the walls, even extending up to the dais. Many toted handmade signs reading “Unify Barnegat,” “Equality is a Human Right,” and “History, Herstory, Our Story” which were shown off during a pre-meeting peaceful protest outside town hall.
The committee agreed to make quick work of township business at the start of the meeting in order to dedicate the rest of the night to those who wished to speak.
During his committee report, Deputy Mayor John Novak made sure to get his thoughts out in a prepared statement before residents took to the mic.
“The Mayor disagrees with the law and has publicly stated his thoughts. I believe that if a law mandates that a curriculum be forced upon children which conflicts with the sexual morals and/or spiritual beliefs of that child’s family then the parents of that child should have the right to opt their child out of that component of public education,” read Novak. “Sexual morals and spiritual beliefs are a parental function not a government function.”
Novak likened the issue to historical disagreements over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. He just barely finished reading his statement before the “boos” and shouts erupted from the LGBTQ supporters, which would continue from both sides all night long.
The issue boiled down to a few major points: whether the school should or should not be teaching LGBTQ history, and whether it was the mayor’s place to espouse personal beliefs from behind the dais.
First up to speak was Briget Nunn, Barnegat resident and licensed mental health clinician.
“Be mindful…what side of history do you want to be on?” Nunn asked of the committee. “What I have a fundamental problem with is that you used your power and privilege, which is a unique situation that not every human being is afforded…to use your belief, not fact, and made people in our community feel as though they have no value,” Nunn added.
Nunn told Jersey Shore Online that she wants to facilitate a sit-down discussion with the mayor and committee over the issue with school officials to tackle the problem civilly, away from the “chaos.”
Barnegat resident and member of Barnegat Township School District Patricia Clark Brescia quoted William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice for its parallel themes to the modern day issue.
“If Shakespeare could figure this out 400 years ago, in a time when there was no sympathy or compassion for Jewish people, why on earth are we still behaving this way in 2019?” said Brescia.
Also in support of the LGBTQ curriculum is Carrie Diona, Barnegat resident and former Democrat candidate for the Barnegat Township Committee. Diona criticized Cirulli’s use of his public platform while praising the inclusivity of the new legislation.
“First and foremost your duty is to represent the entire community of Barnegat, not just yourself,” said Diona, who cited The Trevor Project to quantify the rate of suicide in the LGBTQ community. “If this curriculum can save the life of just one Barnegat child, then it’s completely worth it.”
Diona was one of many decked out in rainbow gear, sporting a rainbow colored scarf around her neck. Some wore rainbow shirts, rainbow face paint, or clothing sporting LGBTQ phrases.
Many pro-LGBTQ residents had the opportunity to say their piece about the issue, some angrily, some civilly and some quite emotionally. Their words were followed by claps and cheers from their supporters.
Despite the sense of community within this group, the room was completely divided. Both sides of the argument shouted interruptions at each other during the public session. You could hear “Liar!”, “We are entitled to our beliefs!” and boos from the audience at any point during the evening.
While a majority of the attendees at the meeting were opposed to Mayor Cirulli’s comments, Cirulli still had a sizeable showing of supporters who mainly took up the two front rows of the crowd. These residents clapped for each other as well, shouted down those who interrupted their argument, and raised their hands in prayer during the invocation held at the beginning of each meeting.
Barnegat resident and meeting regular Robert Martucci delivered a heated speech about the mayor’s Constitutional rights.
“You have the same privilege as an elected official to the First Amendment of the Constitution as the people on this side of the dais,” said Martucci. “You absolutely can espouse your beliefs…people that stand there and say ‘oh my gosh’ separation of church and state’ don’t have a clue what their talking about.”
Martucci cited a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 which defines the separation of church and state.
Representatives of the Jewish faith from Lakewood were also present, denouncing the LGBTQ community as a whole.
“By promoting sin around people and children you are hurting others and causing America to get on bad terms with God,” one stated.
Several members of the Christian and Jewish faith echoed these sentiments, claiming that the law equates to the indoctrination of children.
After nearly two hours of public session, Barnegat resident and mother Connie Jeremias drew attention not only to the issue at hand, but also to what has become of it.
“You created a circus,” she told Cirulli.
Jeremias claimed that Cirulli’s comments during the August meeting, which made national news, portrayed Barnegat Township as “a bigot town” to the rest of America.
Charles Cunliffe, new Barnegat resident, spoke civilly about where the line should be drawn for personal expression by public officials. Cunliffe defined himself as a former teacher, engineer, former elected official (a committeeman and mayor in Lakewood), and a Roman Catholic.
Separation of church and state means “the government must take great care at all times to be absolutely neutral when it comes to religion,” said Cunliffe. “You have to be neutral and your personal opinion has no place on the dais.”
Novak’s personal opinion, which he stated earlier in the evening, was that parents should be given the ability to “opt out” of the LGBTQ curriculum for their kids. This was spoken of as a third option, outside of simply implementing or not implementing the curriculum.
However, Cunliffe believes this to be a slippery slope, giving an “extreme example” of what opting out could look like.
“What if a family truly, truly believes in white supremacy? Do they have the right to opt out of learning about slavery? Do they have the right to opt out of black history month? No,” he explained. “You have to be careful when you float the idea of opting out, that is a really bad, slippery slope.”
The meeting dragged on into the evening, the line for speakers standing strong down the center aisle.
Cirulli listened to each resident’s thoughts and concerns, interrupting here and there with short rebuttals. Prior to the start of the long public session, he made sure to reiterate his stance on the issue, from which he will not be swayed.
“When I made my statements, which I stand by…there was no hate or bigotry intended,” said Cirulli. “Everyone has the right to live their life the way they want, but no group has a right to force others to comply with their beliefs.”