BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — A standing-room-only crowd spent hours Tuesday night debating civil rights, the Bill of Rights and how to help LGBTQ youth at a sometimes raucous but largely respectful township meeting.

More than 120 people attended in response to Mayor Alfonso Cirulli’s comments last month, in which he encouraged people to oppose a new state law mandating school districts teach middle and high school students about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Cirulli also called the LGBTQ movement “an affront to Almighty God.” His comments were picked up by national newspapers and caused a firestorm locally.

Cirulli’s entrance was applauded by about a quarter of people in the audience there to support him.

He opened Tuesday by saying he meant “no hatred or bigotry” by his comments, which brought heckles and loud comments from the audience. It took a while for the crowd to settle, with people on both sides of the issue mostly speaking without interruption.

Cirulli said he wanted to inform people about the law and opposed its lack of an opt-out clause, to allow people to pull their children from aspects of LGBTQ curriculum with which they do not agree.

“Why deprive them of their First Amendment rights and strip the rights of parents how to morally raise their children?” Cirulli said. “Some people have faith issues with that, and they have a right to have children opt out. We’re talking about sexual preference here.”

But many stressed that the new law will not teach sexuality but will focus on the positive contributions of LGBTQ people throughout the nation’s history. That information will help students struggling with sexuality issues feel better about themselves and hopefully avoid severe mental health problems, they said.

“LGBTQ youth have disproportionately high rates of suicide and substance abuse disorders due to rejection by family and communities,” said Vinnie Pizzimenti, of Barnegat, who has a school-age child and is a social worker. She said the new curriculum will help provide positive role models.

Thirteen-year-old Sofia Marchena, an eighth-grader from Barnegat, was there with her parents, Alfredo and Sabrina.

“My aunts are part of the LGBTQ, and they are two of the most amazing people my mom has ever met or I have ever met. They have stuck with us through the hardest times we have been through,” Marchena said.

“I believe half of the parents who are here not defending LGBTQ, your kids are probably bisexual,” Marchena said, “because that’s most of the kids in our school.”

Her comments brought loud applause, and some concerns from others in the audience.

“That’s the whole issue, taking the young children and molding them. That’s the issue,” said Cirulli.

Cirulli and Deputy Mayor John Novak stressed that no township services would ever be denied to anyone based on sexual preference.

“What I’d also like to say is that — you all know my background,” Cirulli said, referring to his career as an educator. “We have all the laws on the books that protect everyone from every type of bullying.”

“I wasn’t protected in high school. I wasn’t at all,” said one young man from the back of the room. “I got a pass to leave class 10 minutes early so I wasn’t around other kids.”

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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