Linda Stephens, who has lived in the town of Greece, N.Y., since the 1970s, says she doesn’t want to bow her head to pray or listen to sectarian prayers when she attends town meetings.
“I’m an atheist,” the retired librarian says.
The town’s practice of beginning its monthly board meetings with invocations, primarily delivered by Christians, makes her feel like an outsider. She says she attends the meetings not as an observer, but a participant, and that she feels coerced to engage in a Christian practice she believes is inappropriate.
Stephens says that she was satisfied with the town’s prior practice of respecting a moment of silence, but that the current town supervisor’s decision to have the town choose a prayer-giver makes her feel as if Greece is turning into what she calls “a little slice of the bible belt.”
Stephens, joined by another town resident, filed suit against the town arguing the prayer practice violates the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion. She won her case when a lower court ruled against Greece, holding that while legislative prayers are not inherently unconstitutional, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the town’s practice amount to a violation of the Establishment Clause.
The town appealed the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today. Stephens will be in the audience to hear the marshal declare, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
Stephens says that her case is different from prayers held during sessions of the federal and state governments. “In local government, it is a different ball game. Unlike observers at the Supreme Court or in Congress, town members are actually participating in the meeting. They are there to get a permit for a block party, or a zoning permit.”
Here’s how it works in Greece, according to the town’s lawyers: Monthly board meetings are opened with an invocation to solemnize the proceedings. Town employees compile a list of clergy and communities in the town, and invite them to speak. The volunteer can be from any faith tradition (or no faith tradition). The majority of the prayer-givers have been Christian, although the list includes a Jewish layman, a Mormon church and a Wiccan high priest. The town has no guidelines for appropriate content for prayer, nor has it ever asked to review a prayer before delivery.
“Let us pray,” is how the Rev. Alexander Bradshaw began one session just prior to Easter.
“It is in these solemn events of next week that we find the very heart and center of our Christian faith,” Bradshaw says in a video court exhibit provided by Stephens’ lawyers. “We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
In briefs, lawyers for the town say their practice is neither novel not unique. “Both Houses of Congress have opened their legislative sessions with a prayer throughout their 224 year existence and all fifty States and countless municipalities and counties have employed similar practices,” they say.
They point out that the president invokes divine guidance on assuming office, and that each presidential inauguration since 1937 has included an invocation and a benediction.
Thomas G. Hungar, who will argue on behalf of Greece, writes in court briefs, “Between the shoals of prohibited establishment and improper hostility lies a significant channel in which the government can permissibly respect the religious nature of our people and accommodate the public service to their spiritual needs.”
The court has upheld legislative prayer and that unless the government acts with impermissible motive in selecting prayer-givers or exploits the opportunity to advance a particular religion, courts have no business parsing the content of prayer, he says.
The Constitution, Hungar argues, allows “the government to accommodate the spiritual needs of its citizens by solemnizing important public occasions with invocations.”
The lower court said the “totality of the circumstances” regarding the town’s prayer practice, including the fact that the town did not more publicly seek volunteers to deliver invocations, led the court to believe the town’s practice “must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.”
Hungar says the lower court decision “threatens to stifle religious expression and communicate a message to people in many American communities that the expression of sincerely held religious beliefs is unwelcome and unacceptable in the public square.”
The Obama administration has filed a brief supporting the town. In court papers, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. says it is not the role of courts to parse the theological content of a particular prayer. “Where, as here, legislative prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate any faith, the inclusion of Christian references alone does not constitute an impermissible advancement or establishment of religion.”
Richard Garnett, an expert on church-state issues at the Notre Dame Law School says, “At the heart of this new case is whether the court should stick with a relatively bright-line rule that treats legislative prayers as presumptively permissible, given their long use in our country, or whether the court should move to more of an all-things-considered inquiry that treats such prayers like Christmas displays and the like.”
The case is expected to be decided by June.