Americans United for Separation of Church and State just scored a big victory.
The town of Greece, New York has been opening board meetings with prayers since 1999 thanks to Town Supervisor John Auberger. Sure, they’ve allowed different members of the clergy to deliver the prayers… but virtually all of those clergy members were Christians.
Finally, in 2008, they were called out on it by two residents of the town, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. After they complained, the town allowed non-Christians to deliver the invocation four times out of the next twelve meetings… and then went back to Christians Christians Christians.
Initially, a district court dismissed their case, saying that the fact that representatives from different denominations were invited to deliver the prayers meant that the town wasn’t pushing Christianity on its citizens.
Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit correctly reversed that ruling.
In practice, Christian clergy members have delivered nearly all of the prayers relevant to this litigation, and have done so at the town’s invitation. From 1999 through 2007, every prayer-giver who gave the invocation met this description. In 2008, after Galloway and Stephens had begun complaining to the town about its prayer practice, nonChristians delivered the prayer at four of the twelve Town Board meetings. A Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation each delivered one of these prayers, and a lay Jewish man delivered the remaining two. The town invited the Wiccan priestess and the lay Jewish man after they inquired about delivering prayers; it appears that the town invited the Baha’i chairman without receiving such an inquiry. However, between January 2009 and June 2010, when the record closed, all the prayer-givers were once again invited Christian clergy.
In all, there were about 130 invocations given between 1999 and 2010. And it looks like all but four of them were given by Christians.
It wasn’t even subtle:
A substantial majority of the prayers in the record contained uniquely Christian language. Roughly two-thirds contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son,” or the “Holy Spirit.” Within this subset, almost all concluded with a statement that the prayer had been given in Jesus Christ’s name. Typically, prayer-givers stated something like, “In Jesus’s name we pray,” or “We ask this in Christ’s name.” Some prayer-givers elaborated further, describing Christ as “our Savior,” “God’s only son,” “the Lord,” or part of the Holy Trinity. One prayer, for example, was given “in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.” Other prayers, including ones not expressly made in Christ’s name, spoke of “the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives,” and celebrated Christ’s birth and resurrection
But somehow, according to the town’s lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund, that didn’t mean this was an establishment of Christianity in the town.
The judges at the Appeals court were very blunt in their conclusion:
We conclude, on the record before us, that the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case.
The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process.
The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.
The ADF could now ask all the judges in the Second Circuit court to reconsider the ruling (an “en banc” review). Barring that, this case c possibly ask the Supreme Court to rule on the issue.
Hopefully, though, this ruling will stand. There’s no reason to have Christian prayers — or any prayers at all — delivered before city councils get to work. If government officials want to waste time, they can do it at home.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)