We Win! Federal Court Says Town Board’s Prayers Endorsed Christianity

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.

A prayer is delivered at a Greece Town Board meeting (via Democrat and Chronicle)

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)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/CurmudgeonKen Misanthrope

    Hemant: You recently went pretty hard on Ashu Solo in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada for pursuing a legal avenue to get prayer out of civic events in his city.  What’s the difference here?  Are you willing to get the facts and reconsider your stance regarding the Saskatoon case?

    • Guest5

      I posted links to Ian Cromwell’s blog article under Ken’s comment on Hemant Mehta’s blog and under Hemant Mehta’s original blog posting tearing Solo apart, but Hemant Mehta keeps deleting the links. He doesn’t want anyone to see the response of Solo and Ian Cromwell. 

      • Guest6

        Everyone should read what Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell has to say about Ashu Solo’s case:

        http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/05/17/taking-them-on-solo

        I’ve posted this link before, but Hemant Mehta kept deleting it because he doesn’t want anyone to see Ian Cromwell’s response to Hemant Mehta.

        • Guest6

          Everyone should read Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell’s full interview with Ashu Solo:

          http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/?p=4678

          I’ve posted this link before, but Hemant Mehta kept deleting it because he doesn’t want anyone to see Ashu Solo’s response to his critics such as Hemant Mehta.

          • Guest5

            If Hemant Mehta deletes these links again, then he should change his name to the Cowardly Atheist.

            • snookums

              thans for the link. but is it nessacary to do this so often in so manny messages ? i can understand why you might get removed

              • Guest5

                There are 2 links.  They’re posted in multiple messages cuz they don’t work when I post them in one message.

    • amycas

      I don’t remember that post, I must have missed it. Care to supply a linky?

      • http://twitter.com/CurmudgeonKen Misanthrope
      • http://twitter.com/CurmudgeonKen Misanthrope

        Read this also: http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/?p=4678

        • http://twitter.com/CurmudgeonKen Misanthrope

          And this:  http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/?p=4678

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            Those are both the same thing.  Did you mean to give us two different things?

            • http://twitter.com/CurmudgeonKen Misanthrope

              Oops…  This is the Crommunist blog, the former is the interview with Solo.  Thanks for catching that. http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/05/17/taking-them-on-solo

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    It seems crazy that this same thing has to go to the courts over and over and over. We need a ruling that just says prayer before government sessions is illegal. Period. Every time another backwards city decides to do this, it’s another run through the courts.

    • Guest5

      I posted links to Ian Cromwell’s blog article under Ken’s comment on Hemant Mehta’s blog and under Hemant Mehta’s original blog posting tearing Solo apart, but Hemant Mehta keeps deleting the links. He doesn’t want anyone to see the response of Solo and Ian Cromwell.  

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Hemant doesn’t delete much.  And yes we’d know because new comments do get emailed out, and on rare occasions I’ll see something really outrageous, and click on it in email to get to the blog, and it’s gone.

        What also happens is that Disqus deletes things.  Given that you’re posting as ‘Guest’, and posting the same link, and doing it many times, I’m inclined to think it was a spam filter that was censoring you, not Hemant.

        Hemant understands the Streisand effect quite well, and know that if he did try to make your comment just go away, he’d be inviting a revolt from most of his readers.

        That said, that interview is worth a read.  Long, but insightful.  Thanks.

        • Guest5

          I’m posting the link many times because Hemant Mehta keeps deleting it.  He is definitely deleting it.  Mehta deleted it the first time I posted it.   The comment was there for 15 minutes after I posted it and then he deleted it.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          Since ‘the link’ keeps disappearing, Hemant assures us not of his doing, I’m going to post it once and hopefully it hasn’t been auto-flagged by Disqus by now. If that doesn’t work then I’ll post instructions on how to find it with google.

          Now can we all chill on the “Hemant is censoring” conspiracy?

          http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/?p=4678 

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger/featured GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Even IF the town only had an christian prayer once a year, that would be too much.

    As a non-christian, that day when the pray might happen be the one time that I go to the town meeting, as a citizen needing to interact on official government business, only to get the impression that the town is pro-christian.

    In the same way that the government should NOT start the civic meeting by saying that “Jesus is a myth” (they should not do that even once a year), similarly they should not start a civic meeting paying homage to Jesus either (not even once a year).

    Instead, the government should remain NEUTRAL on the matter of religion.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    What!? In all those years, no invocation of The Flying Spaghetti Monster?? I’m outraged! How dare they snub his Noodliness! The day of pasta reckoning will come! Marinara will flow in the streets!  

    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.

    Amen to that.

    From 1999 through 2007, every prayer-giver who gave the invocation met this description.

    So much for the bullshit defense, “Well we’ve done it for years, and nobody’s complained until now.” Yeah, well you don’t get to start with a clean slate when somebody finally does complain. Your long record of abusing your power and taking your privilege for granted will be used against you.

    • Coyotenose

       RAMEN to that.

      FIFY, you damn filthy apostate.

  • Jayneseo

    I am so glad that they finally have taken care of this.  These town meetings are always broadcast on the local TV station too

  • Guest5

    Everyone should read what Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell has to say about Solo’s case:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/05/17/taking-them-on-solo

    Everyone should read Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell’s full interview with Solo:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/?p=4678

    I’ve posted these links before, but Hemant Mehta kept deleting them because he doesn’t want anyone to see Ian Cromwell’s response to Hemant Mehta and Solo’s response to his opponents.

  • Fsq

    The pisser is we end up paying for the legal defense of these retards via taxes. Enough. Hold them crime Bally responsible as well as civilly.

  • pamsfriend

    Just kicked in some bucks to AU.  Suggest many do the same.  Support their work.

  • CanadianNihilist

    I’m a little bit curious if the invited Christian clergy was paid to be there, and if it was through the cities taxes.

  • T-Rex

    I guess our elected officials will now have to figure out another way to waste time so they can continue to accomplish absolutely nothing.

  • Prometheus7979

    This makes my heart weep.  I would gladly have prayers or meditations from any denomination of virtually any faith or lack of faith (a moment of a silence or just a minute to meditate representing atheism?) in order to enjoy the additional clarity, peace, and help that I have experienced prayer- not only but ESPECIALLY prayer (or similar actions) before a normally stife-ridden local government meeting.

    Whatever you believe, I have found that a moment of unity before plunging into the specifics of local governance is exceptionally useful- not a ‘waste of time,’ as you derisively, dismissively phrase it.

    • Coyotenose

      Then have a group prayer outside beforehand, and not on taxpayer time. It’s remarkably simple.

      Also, can you explain *how* it is useful?

    • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

      What on Earth makes you think that a Christian prayer counts as “a moment of unity”?

      TRiG.

  • rfj1

    This “IS” a long over due victory for, what was that again, “Common Sense” and a wake up call the robots who are “Conditioned” from childhood to do as they are told without question or they will go to some invented hellish place, bullshit.
    You have to remember that this “Indoctrination(s)” has been going on now for thousands of years and for those who were against “Any” imaginary belief system(s) were simply killed off in order to continue the “Big Lie”, how convenient.  It is “Still” practiced today which tells you that even though we have “Evolved” to a higher intelligence there are still those who will do anything they can to discredit “Reason and Common Sense.
    Now, American United for separation of state and church as well as all of the other groups like FFrF and every person alive who want justice and equality when it relates to what I refer to as “Natural Rights” every person has instead of the “Controlled” one that was put in place so many century’s  ago and will also become a political “Non” issue (again) because there are so many “Old School” religious nuts that still practice this “Fantasy”
    It should be noted that in our society, it is  “Okay” to believe in anything you choose but the answer to “Any Faith based system”  is ,  “Don’t expect me to” because I am not a  schizophrenic.
    r

  • rfj1

    Every victory no matter how small or what may seem insignificant is a victory none the less when it “Dispels” the imaginary Fairytale about some imaginary friend out there, some where, that doesn’t exist nor ever has. The “Only” place such nonsense can exist is in each single persons mind and no where else and each person has the ability to “Snap” out of that delusion and return to the,,,”Living”.

  • rfj1

    Congratulations,,Another one bites the dust and is finally buried.


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