July 27, 2013

Supreme Court considers town's prayers

At issue are the legal limits of religious expression at official functions nationwide.

Bloomberg News

(Continued from page 1)

SCOTUS
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Nathan Miller leads a brief opening prayer at a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y., on June 16.

Bloomberg News photo by Heather Ainsworth

The prayer tradition is relatively new in Greece, a 96,000- person town about five miles from Rochester. Before Auberger became supervisor in 1998, the town began meetings with a moment of silence. Prayers started the following year, according to a federal appeals court that ruled the policy unconstitutional.

It wasn't until 2007 that the practice became a public controversy. Galloway, a Jewish woman who has lived in Greece since 2000, said she grew uncomfortable after repeatedly hearing Christian prayers while attending board meetings to show her support for public-access cable television.

Stephens, 70, a soft-spoken atheist who has lived in Greece since 1970, developed similar objections after attending meetings that touched on various issues, including the creation of a disc golf course in a public park.

The two women say they sought to discuss the issue with Auberger, only to find themselves meeting with two staff members instead. Galloway and Stephens say they were told at the meeting that they could leave the room during invocation.

Auberger declined to comment on the prayer policy, referring questions to the town's lawyers.

Galloway and Stephens sued in February 2008, saying the town was "sponsoring persistent sectarian -- and almost exclusively Christian -- prayers." Until that year, they said in their complaint, the town was selecting its monthly prayer- giver from a list of 37 clergy members, all from Christian churches. From 2004 to February 2008, more than three-quarters of the prayers were explicitly Christian, according to the lawsuit.

"There's too much mixing of Christian conservative religion and town politics," said Stephens.

ALL FAITHS WELCOME

Greece created its list largely by culling names from local directories. The town says it also accepts volunteers of any faith, and in 2008 non-Christians delivered four prayers: two by the Jewish man, one by the chairman of the local Bahai congregation and one by the Wiccan priestess.

Galloway and Stephens fault the town for not publicizing its volunteer policy. They say the result has been that almost all the prayers in recent years have been delivered by Christians.

The July 16 invocation lasted less than a minute, including Auberger's introduction. Miller thanked God for "the many freedoms that we enjoy here in America" and for "the freedom that comes from knowing your son, Jesus." He spoke facing an audience of barely 20 people -- including Galloway, Stephens and a group of uniformed police officers there to see a new colleague take her oath.

As he spoke, four of the five board members -- all but Auberger -- took up Miller's suggestion to bow their heads. As Miller ended with the word "amen," many throughout the room answered in kind.

 

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