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Christian-only invocations @ Greece, NY town council meetings

Part 2: Supreme Court to hear case. Reactions.
Webmaster's comments. The council's options.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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2013-MAY-20: U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the case:

Jessica Mason Pieklo, Senior Legal Analyst at RH Reality Check -- a pro-choice advocacy group -- expressed concern at the Court's decision to accept the appeal of Galloway v. Town of Greece (New York). She wrote:

"Agreeing to review the decision is troubling and could be seen as a signal that the justices are preparing to make a major decision on religion in the public sphere. That signal is only amplified when you look at the other major cases raising issues of religious liberty headed for the court. What kind of pronouncement could the Roberts court be looking to make? The last time the Supreme Court looked at the issue of government-sponsored prayer was in 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld an opening prayer tradition at the Nebraska state legislature. But it did so not by ruling on the constitutionality of the prayer tradition per se, but by relying solely on the tradition of legislative opening prayers that Congress had followed since this nation’s founding. That has left unclear the level of constitutional standards to be applied when judging these kinds of prayer exercises, a point pushed by conservatives when urging the court to take up the case who noted lower courts have applied seemingly different standards when determining whether or not a particular prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause. It could be the Roberts Court views this case as an opportunity to rule on that scrutiny in a way that offers broad protection for government prayer under the guise of “tradition,” an opportunity likely too good for the conservative wing to pass up.

Since 1983, the court has decided only two cases involving prayer as an issue in church-state boundaries, and both of those cases invalidated prayers that appeared to be sponsored by public school officials, at graduation ceremonies in a 1992 decision, and at a school football game in 2000. But that was a different court, one without a chief justice who was groomed in the culture wars by Ed Meese, and without even the vitriolic and devoutly Catholic Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. There’s no reason to think, on the issue of government prayer, that precedent matters here any more than it did to these justices when they wrote the Citizens United decision." 1

In the 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court ruled that town councils and similar legislative sessions could begin with a prayer in most circumstances. This case will give the Court an opportunity to define exactly how such prayers are to be organized so that they don't violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that the Supreme Court has interpreted as requiring a separation of church and state.

Marci Hamilton, a Constitutional expert at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York said:

"The hard part for the court is drawing the boundary lines. I have no doubt it will be a 5-4 decision."

Essentially all of the past decisions of the Supreme Court dealing with ethical, moral, and religious topics have been decided by a 5 to 4 vote. This reflects the liberal/conservative makeup of the Court -- and, for that matter, the liberal/conservative makeup of the country at large. 2

Oral arguments are expected to be scheduled for sometime during the next term of the Court. It begins in 2013-OCT and extends to 2014-JUN.

Hopefully, the court will give precise details on minimum requirements that individual municipal, county, and other groups must meet in order to avoid violating the U.S. Constitution. Then all of the municipal, county, state and federal governing bodies will be able to follow a clear standard -- one that has been missing in the past.

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Reactions from the states, members of Congress, and the Department of Justice:

Forty-nine members of Congress, mostly Republicans, and Attorneys General from 18 states have issued amicus curiae briefs in support of the Town of Greece's original policy of inviting only Christians to give invocations, and exclude persons of other religions and of no religion.

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Webmaster's concerns:

My first concern is that there appears to be massive confusion over the events in Greece:

  • Brett Harvey, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom claims that there is an organized effort to stop opening prayers entirely, both in Greece and throughout the country. He said:

    "Hundreds of towns throughout America find themselves under attack by groups seeking to stop the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer. Since 2004 20 different federal lawsuits have been filed demanding that local governments censor or abandon this historic tradition. A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn’t like." 3

    Others, such as the Court of Appeals, Americans United, and the two plaintiffs in this case, say that opening prayers are quite acceptable as long as the persons delivering the prayers are not from a single religion but who represent the religious diversity of the citizenry.

  • Harvey claims that:

    "The prayer opportunity has been extended to people of many faiths. ... The Town of Greece does not control who volunteers to deliver the invocation." 3

    He may have been referring to events in 2008 when the Town did allow persons of other faiths to deliver the prayer. Yet the panel of three judges at the Court of Appeals said that the Town appeared to purposefully select only Christians.

Some people are either seriously confused or are intentionally misrepresenting the facts, and are thus generating friction, animosity, and anxiety.

My second concern relates to the claim that the religious freedom and liberty of the Town Council is being infringed upon. This claim does not relate to the traditional meaning for the term "religious freedom" which has historically involved freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to proselytize nonbelievers, and freedom to openly practice one's faith. Rather, it is the new meaning of "religious freedom" which is being criticized by Americans United, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and others. It is the freedom by persons of one faith to ignore and denigrate women, minorities, and persons of other faiths and of no faith. This new definition is occasionally seen in the media where conservative Christians who are in a business to provide wedding services to the community such as florists, hall renters, wedding cake bakers, etc. Yet they refuse to provide these services to same-sex couples because it conflicts with their negative views of the LGBT community. They claim that religious freedom in America guarantees them the right to discriminate even though human rights legislation in their state requires them to not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. They want to discriminate -- against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in the case of some in the wedding industry, and against non-Christians in the case of the Town of Greece and many other municipalities. One of the core teachings of Christianity which is shared by almost all other religions is the Ethic of Reciprocity -- commonly called the Golden Rule. This new form of religious freedom -- the freedom and liberty to discriminate against others -- is a direct contradiction of the Golden Rule.

We hope that the eventual ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court will give very precise, unambiguous, and clear instructions that define the limits within which the policies of municipalities, counties, states and national governments can move and still remain constitutional. Only then will this type of lawsuit cease to be filed.

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Four possible options that the Town Council could choose:

Many commentators seem to believe that there are only two options: to have no prayers at all or to have regular Christian prayers. But in reality, there seem to be at least four more choices open to the Council. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the case -- probably in 2014-JUN -- the Justices might well specify a precise formula or group of formulas which need to be followed in order for municipal prayers to be constitutional.

  • Exclusively Christian prayers. The district court thought thought that this was acceptable. The town council seems to prefer this option because this was their policy for many consecutive years, as evidenced by the apparent fact that they maintained a list of dozens of potential prayer-givers who were all Christian. It would communicate to all Christian residents that their religion is considered paramount in the town; it would communicate to all non-Christians that their faith, or lack of a faith, is considered inferior.

  • No prayers: This is probably the most desirable option for strong Atheists and strong secularists who want a complete separation of church and state. It is apparently not the choice sought by Americans United or of the plaintiffs, although many commentators seem to think that it is. This is unlikely to match the preference of most adults in Greece who probably want a prayer/invocation of some form. It would communicate to all residents that religious faith is not a significant factor to guide town council members. It would generate anger among some Christians and others who fear that their religious freedoms are gradually being eroded away.

  • Accommodation involving a full range of religious and philosophical views. Since about 75% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, then 9 Christian prayer-givers per year could be sought. Since about 20% of Americans are not affiliated with any faith, then 2 Agnostic, Apatheist, Atheist, Humanist, unaffiliated theists or other readers could be sought each year. Once a year a representative of another major world-wide faith -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Wicca, etc. would be featured. They could be chosen each year by some random process. This would represent the true nature of religion in America. Since religion in general and Christianity in particular are being followed by American adults, this calculation could be repeated, say every five or ten years. Americans United, the plaintiffs, and the Court of Appeals seem to prefer some form of accommodation. It would communicate to all residents that the public's belief systems are honored roughly in accordance with their prevalence in the town.

  • Alternate accommodation involving a full range of religious and philosophical views. It would reduce the number of annual Christian readers to 8 and increase the number of readers from other major religion to 2. This would come reasonably close to representing the true nature of religion in America while giving minority faiths increased representation so that their adherents would not have to wait as long for their faith to come up. It would communicate to all residents that the public's belief systems are honored roughly in accordance with their prevalence in the town, but that special consideration is given to very small religions so that their adherents would not have to wait a decade or so for their faith to be selected.

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This topic continues with an essay donated by Susan Humphreys
which offers a fifth alternative option for the Greece town council

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Related essay:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jessica Mason Pieklo, "Reason for Concern as Roberts Court Agrees to Hear Government Prayer Case," RH Reality Check, 2013-MAY-24, at: http://rhrealitycheck.org/
  2. Lawrence Hurley, "U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear town meeting prayer case," Reuters, 2013-MAY-20, at: http://www.reuters.com/
  3. Kathryn Jean Lopez, "Is Prayer Greek to Us?," The National Review, 2013-MAY-21, at: http://www.nationalreview.com/

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 2013-AUG-14
Latest update: 2013-AUG-15
Author: B.A. Robinson
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