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Christian-only invocations @ Greece, NY town council meetings

Part 1: Background. New town schedule.
District court & court of appeals rulings.

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Background:

Greece, NY is a town with a population of about 100,000. It is a suburb of Rochester, NY and is located northwest of the city center. It is near the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Two of its residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, objected to the nearly exclusively Christian policy by the Greece town council. For many years, they had scheduled an opening prayer only by Christians before each monthly session. They had done this at every meeting from 1999 to 2007 whn prayers were given in the name of Jesus Christ. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) asked the council to end the practice and introduce some religious diversity among the persons chosen to give the prayers. However, their requests were ignored. In 2007-AUG, AU sent a letter to the Board asking that they either stop prayers, or arrange to have prayers that are nonsectarian. They mentioned in the letter that the U.S. Supreme Court :

"... has made clear that legislative prayer is permissible only if it is nonsectarian – in other words, only if it does not use language or symbols specific to one religion."

During 2008-APR, AU filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, naming as defendants the Town Board and its supervisor, John Auberger. It is called: "Galloway v. Town of Greece (New York)."

According to the lawsuit, over a period of many years, only one non-Christian had been invited to deliver the opening prayer at the monthly meetings.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United said that:

"Greece officials should conduct their meetings in a way that welcomes all citizens. Repeatedly offering [exclusively] Christian prayer at these public events sends a message to non-Christians that they are second-class citizens. That’s not a message public officials should want to send, and it is not a message that the Constitution allows. ..."

It is unfortunate, especially for the taxpayers, that town officials insist on defending an unconstitutional practice. This litigation is likely to cost the community scarce public funds that could have been better spent elsewhere.

AU argued in its briefs that the:

"... practices of favoring Christian clergy and prayers at Town Board meetings ... convey the message that the Christian religion is favored or preferred by the Town over other religions and over nonreligion. ... the practices send the message to adherents of the Christian religion that they are political insiders, and simultaneously send the message to non-Christians that they are political outsiders."

Supervisor John Auberer responded that the town has an inclusive policy toward the prayers. He said:

"The opportunity to say a prayer at our meeting is available to any Greece resident. We do not control the content of the prayers given, nor do we place restrictions or guidelines on these prayers."

However, some have noted that the Council choose clergy to give the prayers from a prepared list of 37 individuals, all of whom are Christian. 1,2

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2007 & 2008: Town Council changes its prayer schedule:

During 2007, the prayers were stopped in response to the complains by Galloway and Stephens. In 2008, prayers resumed and were given by a followers of a variety of faiths that more closely represented the community -- including one member of the Baha'i faith, 8 Christians, 2 Jews, and 1 Wiccan -- a follower of a Neopagan religion. 2

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2012 & 2012: Rulings by the federal District Court and 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:

During 2010, the District Court ruled in favor of the town and its supervisor. The judge stated that the exclusion of non-Christian faiths was not deliberate since the vast majority of religious congregations in Greece were Christian. The plaintiffs had testified that they were not aware of any non-Christian congregations in Greece. They were apparently unaware that the First Unitarian Church of Rochester is located only about 15 miles driving distance from the Greece town hall. Typical Unitarian Universalist congregations are composed of many secularists, many members from non-Christian religions and a minority of persons who would identify themselves as Christians. The senior minister at Rochester's congregation -- Kaaren Anderson -- wrote on the topic of "Our beliefs & values:"

"No single religious text. No ten commandments. No creed to which you must agree. Ours is a religious philosophy that believes religious values should fit individuals, rather than individuals all being made to fit into one single religious "box." We are fond of saying, "The whole world is our sacred text." This respect for individual particularity and openness to diverse sources of wisdom means our community is packed with a wide array of perspectives and beliefs. This diversity excites us. It's not always easy to deal with so many different views, but it leaves us richer than any of us could be on our own. The links on this page offer you a taste of our diversity, but also some of the core values and principles that enable us to feel both "many and one." 3

The town appealed the ruling of the District Court to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2012-MAY, a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's ruling. The vote was 3 to 0. They stated that for the previous 11 years, the opening prayers at town meetings had violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the prayers endorsed Christianity over all other religions. The city officials had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by appearing to purposefully select only Christians for the prayers when it sould have included representatives of other faiths.

Judge Guido Calabresi, writing for the panel, said:

"The town’s desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that for more than two hundred years. But when one creed dominates others -- regardless of a town’s intentions -- constitutional concerns come to the fore." 2

He cited a 1983 case decide by the Supreme Court: Marsh v. Chambers. Judge Calabresi wote that the Supreme Court ruling:

"... suggested that legislative prayers invoking particular sectarian beliefs ... [could violate the Constitution. Although the town did in theory allow anyone to volunteer, it] neither publicly solicited volunteers to invocation nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted." 4

Commenting on the panel's decision:

  • Rev. Barry W. Lynn was pleased. He said:

    "Government meetings should welcome everyone. When one faith is preferred over others, that clearly leaves some people out."

  • Ayesha Khan, who represented the plaintiffs on behalf of Americans United, said:

    "Municipalities need to ensure that no single religion is advanced in their prayers. ... They have to take a fairly active role in ensuring constitutional compliance."

  • Attorney Joel Oster, of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) -- a conservative Christian group that represented the Town of Greece -- said that the Court of Appeals' ruling goes against Supreme Court precedent. It forces towns to have to jump through a lot of hoops just to have someone pray at town meetings. He said: "The town has no obligation to go outside of its borders as if it’s an affirmative action program." 2

  • Brett Harvey, one of the ADF lawyers assisting the Town, said:

    "A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like." 4

Harvey seems to believe that the plaintiffs are attempting to prevent all invocations. In reality, it appears that they simply want to make the invocations represent the religious diversity that exists in Greece and throughout the United States.

Oster's comment is certainly true. Representatives of a full range of religions and of secular belief systems can easily be found within the town of Greece and the other suburbs of Rochester, by consulting the religious listings within the yellow pages or by advertising for volunteers.

Oster also expressed concern that Greece would become a "prayer monitor." Its officials would have to determine when Jesus’ name was being used too much. He said:

"Since this nation’s founding, public meetings have been opened with prayers offered according to the conscience of the speaker. There is no legal reason why a town cannot engage in this practice today with people from within its own community. The district court rightly affirmed the constitutionality of the town’s policy." 2

Apparently the Court of Appeals' belief differs from Oster's.

The Town of Greece appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "AU Challenges Sectarian Prayers At New York Town Council," Americans United, 2008-APR, at: https://www.au.org/
  2. Claudia Srour, "Federal Court: Opening Prayers at Town Hall Meetings Must Encompass All Religions," Christian News Network, 2012-MAY-22, at: http://christiannews.net/
  3. Kaaren Anderson, "Our Beliefs & Values," First Unitarian Church of Rochester NY, 2013-JUL-01, at: http://www.rochesterunitarian.org/
  4. Lawrence Hurley, "U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear town meeting prayer case," Reuters, 2013-MAY-20, at: http://www.reuters.com/

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 2013-AUG-14
Latest update: 2013-AUG-15
Author: B.A. Robinson
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