Greece v. Galloway: How This Will Play Out

Town of Greece v. Galloway atheismThe U.S. Supreme Court recently concluded in Town of Greece v. Galloway that prayer is allowable in city council meetings. I’d rather see prayer excluded—it’s hard to imagine Christians justifiably claiming injury with the elimination of this perk—but I don’t think it will amount to much. In fact, I think we’ve seen a parallel situation already that plays out satisfactorily (but more on that below).

The town of Greece, NY has for years opened its monthly meetings almost exclusively with Christian prayers, and the Supreme Court has now approved this policy. Jeff Schweitzer at responds,

A government action is invalid if it creates a perception in the mind of a reasonable observer that the government is either endorsing or disapproving of religion. Well, c’mon: excluding all religions but one is by any standard an endorsement of that one remaining religion.

I agree. The Supreme Court’s Lemon Test places several demands on actions like this, including that the law must have a genuine secular or civil purpose (more here), and I see none.

About this slap in the face to non-Christians, Justice Kennedy’s decision says,

Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum.

I’m the first to agree that the price of free speech is that we’ll come across things we dislike. As Ricky Gervais put it, “You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you.” But we’re talking here about government speech. The First Amendment applies to citizens, not city councils, and taxpaying citizens of the town of Greece must sit through state-sponsored prayer to talk to their own government.

Christian excesses

No one can be surprised that we are immediately seeing some Christians cobbling together a clumsy interpretation that suits their agenda. One member of a county board of supervisors in Virginia, with an attitude that would make history revisionist David Barton proud, said:

Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard. If we allow everything … where do you draw the line?

You don’t, since it’s all or nothing. The Greece decision demands a nondiscrimination policy toward the prayers.

A more powerful voice is that of Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who said that freedom of religion applies only to Christians. His justification, which is completely counter to the secular U.S. Constitution: “Buddha didn’t create us. Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scripture.”

We live in interesting times.

Applicability of another amendment

One Christian response takes a typically clueless view of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”):

The national Legislative branch (and by implication, the Executive and Judicial Branches), shall not establish a national church nor shall it meddle with the free exercise of religion on the state, local, or individual level. This is a matter of historical fact.

What’s a matter of historical fact is that the 14th Amendment extends the constraints on Congress to all levels of government and that this extension has applied to the Establishment Clause since 1947.

So where is the problem, exactly?

To the Christians who think that this decision strikes a powerful blow and introduces important new freedoms, I have a few questions. No Christian prayer at the city board meeting is a problem? Seriously? You don’t get enough Christianity in the rest of your life that you have to be topped up at this meeting?

Or is it the sanction of the state what you’re after? A pat on the head from an authority to assure you that you’ve backed the right horse? That is, you acknowledge that there is no legitimate secular purpose, but you want to hijack the state to proclaim your message?

Is the goal to get everyone in a serious or productive mood? Surely Christianity isn’t the only (or even best) source for this.

Is your goal to get God’s blessing on the council’s work? Then ask for that on your own. If your small voice isn’t enough to rouse God, note that you share that problem with the priests of Baal. Elijah taunted them: “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).

How this will unfold

I think I can anticipate how the results of this decision will play out, and I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

Remember how the War on Christmas debate unfolds in any particular town. First, we have years or decades of unquestioned government support of a Christian display on city property. Next, non-Christians request that city property not be used for divisive sectarian purposes like this. The city council decides that they can keep the status quo and avoid lawsuits if they make a clear policy allowing all comers. When Christmas rolls around again, the city honors diverse requests for public displays, and city property is now festooned with displays celebrating Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Yule, Festivus, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster along with the manger scene. Christians are outraged at the cacophony, and the city council removes all religious displays from their property, like they were asked to do initially. Christians conclude that manger scenes at churches and in front of homes work just fine.

And secularists wonder why this outcome wasn’t obvious from the beginning. (I’ve written more on the War on Christmas here.)

We’re seeing this progression in Oklahoma City, where a Satanic monument is planned for public space to compete with an existing Ten Commandments monument (see the image of Baphomet above). We’re also seeing it in the town of Greece, where the city council has already heard a Wiccan prayer asking for wisdom from Athena and Apollo.

Are the threats and lawsuits really necessary? Can’t smart Christians see where this is headed and, as with the Christmas displays on public property, quickly move their local governments to the logical end of this process where no prayers at all are allowed?

Imagine how refreshing it would be to have at least one justice out of nine say,
“Religion has no place in government meetings, period. Next case.”
Luis Granados, director of Humanist Press

Photo credit: Micael Tattoo Faccio

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • pianoman

    nearly got into an argument with my mother yesterday about this (on Mother’s Day, no less). she can’t understand the big deal being made, and why non-Christians and non-religious can’t just “sit there quietly” until the prayer is over. I tried to explain how it just doesn’t belong in a town council meeting when your constituency is EVERYONE – christians and non-christians – and that they can pray to themselves before, during and after but that these invocations are useless.

    Was going to ask her if she’d be OK with a Satanic prayer (she’s christian) but I decided I didn’t want to start something with her on Mother’s Day.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That example is exactly what I would bring up. The way to approach it with the Satanic prayers might not be, “Imagine if …” but “Given that …”

      There will be non-Christian prayers in response, some that may be said with no goal but to make Christians take their own medicine.

    • MNb

      That’s why the Surinamese compromise I described above works. If I’d close my eyes and pray to satan (in silence, like everybody else) nobody would know.
      I teach at a public school and all my colleagues are religious. It took me literally years to find out about some of them which religion they adhered. The exact religion of a few colleagues is unknown to me even today. At the other hand there have been several prayers at meetings where nobody even noticed that I didn’t participate.
      Ugh. Christian privilege (or any) is ugly.

  • RichardSRussell

    Can’t smart Christians see where this is headed …?

    “Smart Christians” — ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”
    —Dr. Gregory House, TV doctor

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Good quote. That’s a keeper.

      • Tommykey69

        There’s another line from House, something along the lines of “Isn’t it interesting when you can’t tell the difference between crazy people and religious people?”

      • Norm Donnan

        Dr House,TV doctor ,a great place of philisophical thinking. Most great thinkers were religious until the last few decades.
        Lets face it people,the freedom of other religions to say a prayer(even if they wanted to) is irrelivent,its all about stoping Christians having any voice isnt it???
        Back to the television for more great wisdom.The Simpsons would be a good place to start for you.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Don’t have much of substance to say today? Or do you really think my goal is to legally prevent Christians from making public statements about their religion?

        • MNb

          Probably yes. It’s dubbed the martyr complex. Christians like Norm drool when reading stories about christians thrown for the wild animals in the Roman arena’s and identify so strongly with their courageous cobelievers that they want to feel prosecuted too. Now Norm doesn’t happen to live in North-Korea. So he has to do a little trick: any attempt to prevent christians (legally or not) from censoring non-christian views is defined as prosecuting.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Reminds me of the post I did responding to the claim of 100,000 Christian martyrs per year now. Turns out the that definition of “Christian martyr” is someone who was killed who just happened to be Christian.

          The standards sure got lower all of a sudden.

        • evodevo

          They’ve been that low since the beginnings of Xtianity 2000 or so years ago.

        • Deanjay1961

          Because if Christianists can’t have prayer at town meetings, they don’t have any voice at all. Your voice doesn’t count without a government stamp on it.

  • Castilliano

    Though SCOTUS (esp. Kennedy) has gotten much flak from non-Christians for deciding in favor of Greece, I have to wonder, now that I’ve come to terms with my grief, if Kennedy hadn’t foreseen this chain of events.
    Outright banning would’ve seemed anti-Christian (even though addressing all religions) and ignited a firestorm of outrage, and costly lawsuits. Giving the local non-Christian religions (and other faith/moral positions) air time at these councils might be the better route. It breaks through the dominionist shell some have constructed. This exposure to plurality is a good end whether or not the “cacophony” leads to outright banning (best end).
    Crossing fingers, metaphorically, that such is our path

    • RichardSRussell

      I admire your optimism. However, it seems to me that this will simply be another precedent cited by the RRR when trying to break down further barriers between church and state. They already trot out “But it says ‘in God we trust’ on our money and ‘under God’ in the pledge of allegiance.”at a moment’s notice, and with Greece v. Galloway, the the camel’s lips and eyeballs are now in the tent along with his nose.

  • Mr. Two

    In a lot of places, you could pray a Christian prayer that most of the Christians present wouldn’t be happy with. All you have to do is pass out Rosary beads and start praying “Hail Mary…”.

  • natsera

    Elena Kagan, herself a religious minority, said something to the effect that if a person does not cooperate with the Christian prayer, for example, not bowing their head or not standing, how, then, will the board respond to the request they came to make? It’s like non-Christians are being forced to set themselves up for rejection. It will be nice if the scenario you envision comes to pass, but in the meantime, what?

    • Tommykey69

      That to me is the crux of the matter.

    • Carol Lynn

      How would those proper-head-bowing-prayers know if I am not not bowing my head? If they are looking around instead of being abject in their prayer we are equal in our disdain of the process. Unless you envision a proctor whose job it is to make sure everyone is properly abject before Jesus? In which case it it surely a violation of the establishment clause, Galloway v Greece or not.

  • MNb

    Once again: as a Dutchman living in Suriname I don’t really get issues like this one.

    “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard.”
    How stupid can American christians be? This is plain discrimination. If you want to allow prayer in council meetings you have to do it the Surinamese way, grant equal rights to everyone and settle on a workable compromise. It goes like this.
    The chair(wo)man asks the meeting for a moment of silence to beseech the blessing of The Supreme Being. Everybody (including atheists and agnosts) shut up; everybody chooses for him/her whether or how to pray and after a minute or perhaps two the chair(wo)man thanks everybody. Thus nobody is second rate.

    But no, those rabid American christians have to spoil everything and display a total lack of empathy with their fellow-(wo)men. Ugh.

  • smrnda

    Whenever I think of religious expressions I like to replace a word like ‘pray’ with ‘play the accordion’ and see if we were talking about playing the accordion instead of praying, if anyone would consider it a free speech issue.

    “O no! I’m being told that I can’t start the town council session by playing the accordion! This is oppressing me!”

    Nobody would buy that – the town council meeting isn’t a time for me to perform no matter how badly I want to, nor does the presence of people who might want to listen change that. It’s neither the time nor the place, and anybody who says ‘hey, we came here to discuss public policy this isn’t a musical performance venue’ would be 100% right.

    This is just basic manners – you don’t do things that exclude people to the best of your ability. You don’t pretend that a shared space belongs to YOU AND YOUR GROUP as if nobody else existed. You don’t ask for audience participation in a ritual that many will disagree with.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Great example, thanks.

    • Pofarmer

      But it’s GAWD we’re talkin’ bout here!

    • wtfwjtd

      I think in a lot of cases that may be the whole idea–public prayer could easily be used as a tool for intimidation.

  • hector_jones

    The problem with your analysis, Bob, is that it entirely fails to consider an important question – what would the ancient Hebrews think about prayer before a city council meeting?

    • Bob Seidensticker


      Good catch.

    • RichardSRussell

      They’d probably be fine with the prayer and think that all the democracy was dangerous. Might give people ideas.

  • Kodie

    Or is it the sanction of the state what you’re after? A pat on the head
    from an authority to assure you that you’ve backed the right horse? That
    is, you acknowledge that there is no legitimate secular purpose, but
    you want to hijack the state to proclaim your message?

    It’s not exactly that, but it is close. There seems to be a paranoia about who can take control if the Christians are not in control. They imagine exactly how it feels when someone takes away your rights. They imagine a slippery slope, where secularism leads to Stalinism, and soon after, the state will abolish religion altogether. If they don’t maintain their stake in it, another belief system will seize the void and dictate to them what they know they are dictating to us. They just feel safer knowing their rights are intact when it is represented at a government level, and in doing so, keeping another frame of thought from making any gains.

    But then they go ahead and pretend there’s no problem for the rest of us. Their god is real to them, they feel we are all in safer hands while Christianity is maintained. How many times has a Christian warned us that if we got what we thought we wanted, secularism, Muslims would seize the chance to dominate? That if we don’t like the Christians, we ought to just leave the US and head for an Islamic theocracy, because that is what it will be like here. They know how they would feel if some other belief system took the same status they currently enjoy, and pretend or fear or have been manipulated to conclude that the US’s mission would be irretrievably derailed if they conceded it would be fair enough for everyone to have the right to practice their beliefs privately. And if not Islam, then atheism itself (as depicted by Stalin), rampantly forcing women to get abortions and making everyone practice homosexuality, not to mention conspiring to teach the country’s children what’s what about evolution. Since they already have magical thinking, it is not difficult to feed them lies and fear-monger.

    They also have a problem understanding the difference in definition of “privately” and “secretly”. If we move toward secularism, everyone has a right to practice privately, that means in a church or in your home, to your children, or even on the street corner. You don’t have to hide in the basement pretending to have a tupperware party if the police should catch wind of a mass and raid your home. Lol.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Interesting analysis, thanks.

  • Scott_In_OH

    I hope you’re right, Bob, but didn’t the decision explicitly say that it was OK to open with Christian prayers because the council asked all the religious leaders in town if they wanted to open a meeting, and nearly all who responded were Christians?

    That is, in SCOTUS’s mind, Greece is already following the Christmas model you describe. In places where Christianity is the dominant religion, there is no pressure point for others, including the non-religious. It’s saying that tyranny of the majority is OK.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The articles I read seem unclear on whether there’s been exclusively Christian prayers for the last 10 years or so, or almost so. One source mentioned the Wiccan/Pagan prayer to Athena and Apollo, so presumably the dam has been breached, even if only in a tiny fashion.

      With the national attention, I would think that a parallel of the Baphomet statue in Oklahoma City is possible. The town has 94K people, enough to have either diverse believers who demand equal time or smart asses who’d like to lampoon the decision.

      But then, of course, you have the problem that the Muslim or Sikh or Buddhist who gives a prayer might get marked by the council so that any request he makes would be rejected.

      • evodevo

        Nahhhh, surely not! I bet all those Xtian council members would be intentionally going overboard to prove that their decisions were based only on a consideration of the facts at hand, and not influenced AT ALL by the evident non-Xtian beliefs of the petitioners … right? Right?

  • wtfwjtd

    My wife found this gem on YouTube, I see more of this in our future:

    Proof that Christians hate getting a dose of their own medicine.

    Blasphemy: Sinful, fallible man trying to protect an omniscient, all-powerful god from getting his feelings hurt.

    • Kodie

      That was hard to watch. I can’t stand that grown adults are so petty and also that they are superstitious. It is hard to know what they are thinking, but it sounded like they are afraid god will think they’re a Hindu now if they listen respectfully. The Hindu’s prayer seemed vague enough not to have any conflict with a Christian’s beliefs, still more than I think we need to conduct a political meeting.

      • wtfwjtd

        Yes, it’s amazing what assholes some people can be, all in the name of religion. As you said, there was nothing offensive here, it will really get interesting when other groups get the mic.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Absolutely unbelievable. I’d heard of this, but seeing it play out is incredible.

  • evodevo

    “Can’t smart Christians see where this is headed and, as with the
    Christmas displays on public property, quickly move their local
    governments to the logical end of this process where no prayers at all
    are allowed?”
    Probably not ….. that would involve being rational, and also seeing things from the perspective of a non-Xtian. You have to keep in mind that these people are highly insulated from reality – their world is restricted to their social circle and the sole company of fellow religionists. They can’t conceive of any other paradigm, wherein Xtianity would NOT be the majority. Oh, wait, then they would be the “persecuted” minority and would be whining about it.

  • Asmondius

    Sorry, Bob. Everyone wants their prayers and even the Satanists are not on your side.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Oh? Let’s see if there are complaints from Christians as a broader selection of prayers are offered.

      You remember the famous example of the hecklers in response to a Hindu prayer in the U.S. Congress a while back? Christians are delighted to see support for their own prayers but are sometimes curiously reluctant to actually hear others seize the same privilege.

      • Asmondius

        I’ll be happy to provide you examples of atheist heckling of prayer at public meetings – rude individuals rarely represent the majority of any group, right?

        As a person who routinely mocks prayer, looks like you are shedding alligator tears for non-Christian participants.
        Or are you only opposed to what Christians believe?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          You certainly sidestep the point a lot. Do people in your other circles complain?

          All I can respond with is what I originally said in my last comment.

        • Asmondius

          Bob, there needs to be a point to sidestep – right?

          You simply made a broad statement based upon one incident of heckling – that’s bigotry. No point taken.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Bigotry? Interesting charge. Show me.

        • MNb

          “I’ll be happy to provide you examples of atheist heckling”
          As happy as you were to provide information about

          “I guess you didn’t hear – someone brought a request for indictment concerning the abuse cases to the International Court in Geneva. It was thrown out.”
          Lew, Hector and I have been patiently waiting for 9 days now and be sure I won’t forget. But I won’t hold my breath for it, whether you mind or not.

  • Mary

    please write an article about that conundrum!!!

    /atheistic negation or rational antimagy???/

    == Non-magical thinking versus atheism ==

    The words atheist and atheism are greek-derived words created by theists and signify denial over theism.

    Modern atheist scholars prefer to use the term non-magical thinker [or non-magical(ist), antimagical(ist), also non-magicalism, antimagy, antimagicalism] to denote denial of any non rationally justifiable belief, like traditional beliefs or personal delusion which cannot be justified by reason and observation. Non-magical thinking and terminology of that kin, have their foundations based on the scientific method, because these terms are selected by atheists themselves, and not like the atheistic kin of terminology based on the greek word atheos, a word created by theists, and characterizing the atheist and atheism as beliefs outside theism. Non-magical thinking is a terminology created from the visceral aspect of atheism and atheists themselves. The Richard Dawkins Foundation accepts these non-magical terms as more self-aware atheism, but many accuse Richard Dawkins of populism, thus scholar jargon even if it provides a better ground of thought, does not serve always his goals in his opinion.