On May 5, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case “that local governments can, under certain conditions, open their meetings with prayers—even if those supplications to the deity are Christian most of the time.” Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said that his organization “litigated this case…on behalf of two women who opposed the ‘majority-rules’ prayer practice in Greece, N.Y.” Boston noted at the time of the ruling that Americans United was strongly opposed to the court’s decision. He also noted that the decision “was marked by a familiar 5-4 split.” Sahil Kapur (Talking Points Memo) said that in its 5-4 ruling “along ideological lines, the Court ruled against the Jewish and atheist plaintiffs, who argued that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”
Writing for the dissenters, Justice Kagan said, “In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the Town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions. So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits. In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”
In the majority opinion, Boston said that Justice Kennedy acknowledged that “some government-backed prayer might still be problematic.” Kennedy wrote, “If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”
So, the high court is not willing to say what constitutes a “non-sectarian” prayer – but it is willing to at least entertain the idea that offensive and derogatory prayers can be a problem?
I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this issue.
It looks like Rob Boston was right. That wasn’t the last we’ve seen of the “prayer issue” in in Greece, New York. Last Tuesday, Kapur reported what’s going down in that town.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to local governments that want to open their public meetings with religious prayer.
It was a victory for the town board of Greece, N.Y., which stressed that it was fighting not just for Christian prayer but for the right of all people express their views regardless of their faith…
Less than four months later, the town of Greece has adopted an invocation policy that excludes non-religious citizens and potentially shuts out faiths that aren’t well-established in the town, according to a top secular group.
Kapur said that the town’s new policy “restricts opening remarks to ‘assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.’”
Translation: atheists and agnostics need not apply. And unless the board clerk decides that your faith has an “established presence” in the New York town of fewer than 100,000, you may not deliver an invocation.
Writing for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick said that the town’s new prayer policy “limits the invocation before public meetings to individuals who represent ‘assemblies with an established presence in the town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.’ The ‘leader’ or ‘appointed representative’ of religious assemblies from outside the town of Greece may also lead prayers, but only if at least one resident of Greece is a member of his or her congregation and specifically asks in writing.” Lithwick added that issues about “the legitimacy of any one religious assembly will be resolved by the town clerk, who is tasked with determining whether an organization would qualify for 501(c)(3) status.”
Finally the policy states that the town clerk will compile an annual list of “all ‘churches,’ ‘synagogues,’ ‘congregations,’ ‘temples,’ ‘mosques’ or other religious assemblies in the Town of Greece.” The new rules are explicitly based on a model policy from the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal group that represented the town at the high court last year.
Lithwick said that the rules of the town’s new prayer policy seemed to “screen out atheists, such as Dan Courtney, who delivered the invocation in July, both because he does not live in the town of Greece proper nor does he belong to any assembly of atheists that meets there.” She added that even if Courtney lived there, it was “unclear whether groups of atheists qualify as ‘assemblies with an established presence in the town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.’”
Kapur reported that Barry Lynn—who is the executive director of Americans United—“torched the new policy as unconstitutional and a warning sign for cities and towns all across the United States which may seek to adopt a similar policy.” Lynn told Talking Points Memo, “They said they’re open to anybody. Now they’re not open to anybody. It’s really a scam. This is a way to go back to business as we had sadly always expected it. They only want religious people — frankly they only want Christians — to participate. This is a step backward.” Lynn added that “Greece’s new policy was inconsistent with the majority decision. In it, Justice Anthony Kennedy described public prayer as a “larger exercise in civic recognition” designed to “represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”
Atheists Get The Shaft In New York Town After Supreme Court Ruling (Talking Points Memo)
Greece’s prayer policy raises new questions (Democrat & Chronicle)
Prayer by Popular Vote? (The Humanist)