Another Town Loses Lawsuit Over Christian Prayers at Public Meetings

The town board of of Greece, New York (population about 94,000, outside of Rochester) regularly opened its public meetings with Christian prayers.  More times than not the prayers contained references to “Jesus Christ, “Jesus,” “Your Son, or “the “Holy Spirit.” But in a unanimous decision issued May 17, 2012, the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the town’s practice violated the U.S. Constitution by favoring one religion over others. Two citizens of Greece, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, complained to the town several times about the prayer practice, sometimes during public comment periods at meetings. When the two pointed out that the prayers impermissibly aligned the town with Christianity, the town failed to respond. Nor did the town respond when one person delivering an invocation in October, 2007 described objectors to the town’s prayer practice as a “minority … ignorant of the history of our country.” The aggrieved citizens finally filed a lawsuit in 2008, backed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in which they claimed the town’s prayer practice unconstitutionally preferred Christianity over other faiths and the prayer practice was impermissibly sectarian. The plaintiffs won after the court found that the town’s “steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers” essentially “identified the town with Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause.” The court said the town had an obligation to consider how its prayer practice would be perceived by those who attended town board meetings, and that the town has an obligation to “demonstrate respect for the beliefs of others.” The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said of the ruling, “We are very happy with the court’s decision. Government meetings should welcome everyone. When one faith is preferred over others, that clearly leaves some people out.”

Source: Americans United for Separation of Church and State press release, May 17, 2012

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