For as long as anyone can remember, the Town Board of Greece, N.Y., has opened its meetings with a prayer. It’s almost always a Christian prayer, but the Board has also allowed prayers led by a Jewish resident, a Baha’i minister and a Wiccan priestess.
But it’s evidently the Christian prayers that upset two residents who sued the town to stop exercising the First Amendment before board meetings.
Now the town is awaiting word, expected any day, from the Supreme Court as to whether it can continue the tradition.
Greece’s Town Board is no different than Congress, state legislatures, city councils and other legislative bodies across this land that open proceedings with a prayer. It’s been the practice of Congress since the country’s founding and continues to this day.
The Supreme Court ruling in Greece v. Galloway could potentially uphold or overturn that tradition. The case was heard in November, and the implications will depend on whether the court makes a narrow or broad ruling.
The lawsuit was filed in 2008 by Linda Stephens, an atheist and member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — which is little more than an anti-Christian hate group — and Susan Galloway, who presents herself as Jewish. The lawsuit was filed on the women’s behalf by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another atheist activist group.
The women claim that Christian prayers make them uncomfortable.
Initially, the pair lost their lawsuit when a judge ruled that the town did not intentionally exclude non-Christians, but they won on appeal and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. When they heard the case in November, the justices asked questions about various scenarios, such as having officials edit prayers to be nonsectarian.
Justice Sam Alito was particularly skeptical that a diverse region such as Greece could possibly come up with a “prayer” that would satisfy everybody.
The First Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The idea of some government agency cobbling together a “nonsectarian” prayer smacks of establishing a religion just as much as prohibiting prayers altogether smacks of establishing atheism as the state religion.
The best answer is the one Greece already uses: Have the pre-meeting prayer, don’t require anyone to participate, and let anyone who makes a request lead a prayer at the next meeting or have their favorite clergy person give it. If the atheists want to chime in, they can either offer an atheist benediction or have a moment of silence.
That is diversity. Everyone gets to participate, no one is restricted from participating.
Religious freedom shouldn’t be held hostage to anti-Christians’ “uncomfortable” feelings.