April 2008 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United has filed a lawsuit in federal district court against a town council in New York that opens its public sessions with Christian prayer.

Americans United on Feb. 28 sued the Greece, N.Y., Town Board and its supervisor, John Auberger, on behalf of two local residents who object to government-sponsored religious activities that favor one faith over others. The lawsuit alleges that almost all of the board’s opening prayers are explicitly Christian, and that since 2004, only a single non-Christian has been invited to deliver the opening prayer.

“Greece officials should conduct their meetings in a way that welcomes all citizens,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Repeatedly offering Christian prayer at these public events sends a message to non-Christians that they are second-class citizens. That’s not a message public officials should want to send, and it is not a message that the Constitution allows.”

AU filed the lawsuit only after its calls to end the prayer practice were ignored. In July, Americans United sent a letter urging the Greece Town Board to either stop praying before its meetings or choose prayers that are nonsectarian.

Citing Supreme Court precedent, Americans United’s letter noted that the high court “has made clear that legislative prayer is permissible only if it is nonsectarian – in other words, only if it does not use language or symbols specific to one religion.”

The legal action, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, was prompted by Greece officials’ refusal to alter the prayer policy.

“It is unfortunate, especially for the taxpayers, that town officials insist on defending an unconstitutional practice,” Lynn said. “This litigation is likely to cost the community scarce public funds that could have been better spent elsewhere.”

Americans United argues in its lawsuit that the “practices of favoring Christian clergy and prayers at Town Board meetings…convey the message that the Christian religion is favored or preferred by the Town over other religions and over nonreligion.”

Moreover, the lawsuit charges that “the practices send the message to adherents of the Christian religion that they are political insiders, and simultaneously send the message to non-Christians that they are political outsiders.”

The Galloway v. Town of Greece lawsuit calls on the court to ensure that the Board and Supervisor Auberger no longer employ sectarian practices in the context of Town Board meetings.

Auberger insists that the town has an inclusive policy toward prayers. “The opportunity to say a prayer at our meeting is available to any Greece resident,” he told the Greece Post. “We do not control the content of the prayers given, nor do we place restrictions or guidelines on these prayers.”

But critics noted that Greece officials choose clergy to recite prayers from a list of 37 people, all of whom are Christian.