Prayer Problems: Does Greece Town Board’s New Invocation Policy Exclude Atheists And Other Religious Minorities?

The reality is that the restrictions on the new policy are narrow enough that just one of the four non-Christians who have delivered an opening invocation since the town’s prayer practice was adopted in 1999 would be eligible to give an official invocation in the future.

The Town Board of Greece, N.Y., has issued its formal policy on pre-meeting prayers, leading to a combination of confusion and backlash.  

Almost four months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while communities are free to open their meetings with predominantly Christian prayers, they may not exclude other points of view.

Since the decision in Greece v. Galloway was handed down in May, one local resident who is an atheist has offered a pre-meeting message. But that was before the advent of the formal policy, which was released on August 19.    

Earlier this week, the Rochester Democrat and Gazette took a look at the town’s new policy and concluded that atheists may not be allowed to participate in the future.

Speakers will be chosen from “assemblies with an established presence in the town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective,” the policy states.

Previously, the town lacked a formal written policy for selecting who would deliver the invocations, but the board’s attorneys told the Supreme Court that clergy or laypeople of any sort, including atheists, could offer a pre-meeting message.

Since the news report seemed to contradict the town’s early contention, it stirred up anger.

“I was surprised that they would be quite so blatant about the discrimination they wish to impose,” Dan Courtney, the atheist who gave an invocation before the board in July, told the Democrat and Gazette.

In a statement, American Humanist Association Legal Director David Niose said Greece’s new policy suggests that the town’s government never intended to include non-Christians, even though it told the Supreme Court otherwise.  They “were never sincere,” he said.

It seems that while this anger is justified by some of the policy details, there is also a bit of confusion here. Americans United attorneys have analyzed the prayer requirements and made several conclusions:

 

  • The policy seems to let atheists offer invocations if they are associated with a group that gathers to discuss members’ beliefs, but that point should be clarified. (There are two non-theistic groups that could meet these standards in or near Greece.)
  • The policy allows those who deliver the invocation to choose the invocation’s content, and to open with a moment of silence or a solemnizing message rather than a prayer if they choose.

But there are some major concerns, suggesting that the policy is a bait-and-switch that drastically shrinks the pool of potential invocation-givers since the new policy requires any invocation-giver to be a “leader” or “appointed representative” of an “assembly,” and that “assembly” must have an “established presence in the Town of Greece” or be “regularly attended by at least one resident of the Town of Greece.” Because there are almost no non-Christian assemblies in the town, this new requirement threatens to eliminate what is already minimal diversity in the pool of invocation-givers.

It’s certainly no surprise that there are problems with the Greece policy because it was crafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group that has represented the town throughout this legal process. The ADF’s extreme fundamentalist worldview means it’s highly unlikely to create an environment in which atheists would feel welcome, and it would surely want to exclude non-Christians to the extent that the courts will allow.

Perhaps because of the recent backlash, the ADF is now going out of its way to say that the policy does not exclude atheists or those who hold non-Christian religious viewpoints.

“This new policy does not discriminate based on religious perspective,” ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey said yesterday on WXXI News’ “Connections With Evan Dawson.” “There are – any group, regardless of their religious perspective that chooses to form within the community to discuss those perspectives are free to be added to the list.”  

But the reality is that the restrictions on the new policy are narrow enough that just one of the four non-Christians who have delivered an opening invocation since the town’s prayer practice was adopted in 1999 would be eligible to give an official invocation in the future.

Unless the town changes its new policy and keeps its promises to the Supreme Court, it will become increasingly likely that only Christians will be leading pre-meeting prayers. But we won’t know for sure until more atheists and other religious minorities start submitting requests to lead invocations.