Case of prayer at Greece meetings heads to court
August 10, 2009
Meaghan McDermott — Democrat and Chronicle
The ongoing battle over prayers at town of Greece board meetings heads to court this week.
Arguments are scheduled Thursday before U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa in the federal case filed last year. Both sides are seeking summary judgment.
The lawsuit was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of two Greece residents concerned by Town Board meetings being opened with explicitly Christian prayers, offered by exclusively Christian clergy.
Opening the meetings with prayer is a long-standing practice in the town, although town leaders say preference is not given to any one religion and that anyone is welcome to offer a prayer before the meetings.
The issue is not that the town board opens its meetings with prayer — something the U.S. Supreme Court found constitutional in a 1983 case — but that the town excludes non-Christians from participation, said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United.
In the 1983 case, the court ruled that non-sectarian prayers, prayers that do not reference a specific deity or use the language or symbols specific to one religion, are permitted.
“Legislative prayer is supposed to, or can permissibly, solemnize a legislative session,” he said.
“But it is not supposed to make people feel like outsiders who don’t belong. When prayers are limited to one faith, people not of that faith feel like outsiders, as if the town is saying: ‘You are not one of us and we don’t want you.'”
Colorado-based Alliance Defense Fund is representing the town, pro bono.
Joel Oster, ADF senior litigation counsel, said the case boils down to “the plaintiffs wanting the town to become the prayer police and tell people to whom and how they should pray.”
The issue initially came to light in June 2007, when the Genesee Valley Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter asking the town to stop opening board meetings with sectarian prayers. Americans United sent a similar letter later that year.
Town Supervisor John Auberger rebuffed the requests and said the town would continue the practice and would not tell anyone offering a prayer at the meeting what they could or could not say.
And, he said, the opportunity to deliver the pre-meeting prayer is open to any Greece resident willing to contact the town and volunteer.
Generally, town officials invite local clergy to offer the prayers, rotating through a published list of religious organizations in Greece — all of which are Christian.
According to court documents, of 104 prayers offered at Town Board meetings from 1999 through 2007, none was offered by non-Christians.
Since the suit was filed, the majority of the prayers have remained Christian, although one was delivered by a Wiccan priestess and two others by non-clergy.
In their suit, Americans United seeks to have Greece’s current practices declared unconstitutional, arguing the town has “systematically excluded members of non-Christian and non-mainstream faiths from selection as prayer givers” and ensures that all citizens attending meetings are “exposed to sectarian, Christian prayers” in violation of the Establishment Clause.
In response, ADF argues “the Court and the Town should not get involved in dictating the content of prayers. This is a matter best left to theologians.”