BARNEGAT - Intermingled with shouts of support and applause, voices of disapproval set the tone as Mayor Al Cirulli entered for the start of Barnegat’s September Committee meeting.  Meanwhile, the crowd of approximately 150 people didn’t all fit in the room, and many came from out of town. The attention focused on Cirulli’s statements opposing a new law requiring the integration of contributions made by LGBTQ individuals into New Jersey’s public school curriculum.

At the onset, Cirulli stuck by his original statements, which made national headlines. He added that there was no hate or bigotry intended. Cirulli wanted to make sure people were aware of the new law.

“Everyone has the right to live his or her life the way they want,” said Cirulli. “No group has the right to force others to comply with their beliefs, deprive them of their First Amendment rights, and strip the rights of parents of how to morally raise their children.”

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Divided into a few factions, the group included a number of “would-be constitutionalists.” Some decried Cirulli’s use of the dais to express his personal beliefs based on faith – citing the separation of church and state.  Others insisted that the Bill of Rights gave the Mayor the same rights as anyone else to espouse his religious views, even in his capacity as an elected official.

Barnegat resident Carrie Diona suggested that while Cirulli was entitled to his views, his duty was to represent everyone in Barnegat. “If you cannot separate your personal views from representing all of your constituents, maybe you should step aside and allow someone that represents the people and not themselves take over,” she said.

Nodding his head in the negative, Cirulli stated, “That won’t happen.”

More than a handful of people admitted they showed up to “support Al as a Christian” and had no idea what the new curriculum involved. The evening was filled with interruptions, people talking over one another and putting everyday courtesies to the wayside.

Many held signs and spoke out against what they viewed as attacks against the LGBTQ community. Others clearly agreed with Cirulli’s objection to the inability to opt-out of the curriculum they felt challenged their religious beliefs.

Shawn Hyland of the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey said his organization represents 1500 churches. “As students return to the classroom this week, the battle for the minds of the emerging generation is escalating,” Hyland said. “The attempts to indoctrinate students on sexuality is a serious overreach and a concern to parents, pastors, and teachers.  This endless obsession with sexuality is unhealthy and unnecessary.”

Still more took it a step further and spoke out against alternative lifestyles altogether. A retired chiropractor shared her knowledge of prospective maladies associated with homosexual practices. One of two members of Lakewood’s Jewish community called the Barnegat mayor a “hero of New Jersey for vulnerable children.” He said that the sins of LGBT were causing people to be in bad terms with God and asked if they were waiting for another Superstorm Sandy.

Reverend Gregory Quinlan identified himself as a former homosexual, who was also once a gay activist.  He dismissed the premise that people are born gay and said science supported his assertions. “Everything that is LGBT is a faith-based assumption,” said Quinlan.

The naysayers faced plenty of opposition. Some pointed out that the proposed curriculum would provide role models for LGBT students and help other kids to understand the challenges they face.  Diona read statistics regarding suicide and suicide attempts among young LGBTQ students. “If this curriculum can save even one life of a Barnegat student, why would you oppose it?” she asked Cirulli.

Vinnie Pizzimenti, a Barnegat resident for over two decades and parent, said she is a social worker and long-standing ally to the LBGT community. She concurred with Diona’s opinion. “Youth who identify as LGBT also experience disproportionately higher rates of substance abuse, homelessness and a whole array of other negative circumstances due to rejection by their families because of who they are, “Pizzimenti said.

Now a Manahawkin resident, Myles Ragusa said he lived in Barnegat most of his life. “I came out gay in middle school,” he shared. “The bullying started almost immediately, and nothing was ever done.”

As a result of others physically and mentally abusing him, Ragusa admitted he tried killing himself four or five times. “I now work at Barnegat High School teaching some of your children,” he said. “I do the marching band and am the color guard director.”

“The programs are filled with many gay, lesbian, bisexual children who tell me who they are,” continued Ragusa. “It’s because they’re afraid to tell you.  We need a sticker on a classroom door to define where is a safe place for us.”

Barnegat resident Connie Jeremias suggested the whole discussion was moot. “It is a law passed by the State of New Jersey, “she said. “It will go into effect. What you did, by coming here and giving your belief is divided our town.”

Jeremias blamed the mayor for letting children know which parents don’t like gay people. “I want to thank you for this circus which is now our town and went national,” continued Jeremias. “I am very embarrassed to be part of this town.”

A former educator and elected official, who lives in Barnegat for five years, Charlie Cunliffe expressed concerns regarding the consequences of allowing an “opt-out” of any type of curriculum. He gave as examples white supremacists or neo-Nazis who might want their children opted out of black history or Holocaust studies.  “Most of this discussion belongs with the Board of Education,” submitted Cunliffe.

The Barnegat Board of Education has convened since Cirulli’s initial statement. However, concerns about the LGBTQ curriculum were not addressed. It was not on the agenda of the Board’s August 27th meeting. Additionally, no one from either side of the debate showed up to ask questions.   Garden State Equality has offered some insight concerning the prospective curriculum, but it is ultimately up to each district to put their own in place.

Stephanie A. Faughnan is a local journalist and Director of Writefully Inspired, a professional writing and resume service. Feel free to contact her at sfaughnan@tapinto.net.