For years, the Greece Town Board has invited clergy to open the Board’s monthly meetings with a prayer. Over the decade leading up to this lawsuit, all but two of the guest chaplains were Christian, and the vast majority of prayers were explicitly Christian. Guest chaplains often ask citizens to join in the prayers, and citizens face considerable pressure to participate. In February 2008, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of two local citizens, alleging that the Town’s practices violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In August 2010, the federal trial court in New York granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed our case. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and ruled in our favor, concluding that the Town violated the Establishment Clause by presenting a “steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers.” The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case, and we filed our brief in September 2013.
In a 5-4 decision issued in May 2014, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit and upheld the Town of Greece’s practices. The majority held that the Establishment Clause did not prevent the Town from presenting consistently Christian prayers delivered by consistently Christian guest chaplains, unless the Town discriminates on the basis of religion in inviting guest chaplains or “the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” The Court also held that there was no unconstitutional coercion of citizens to participate in the prayers because citizens were free to leave the room during the prayers and because there was no evidence that “town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”
Justice Kagan’s dissent warned that the Town’s practice “put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders.” This, she said, “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, we launched Operation Inclusion, to ensure that local governments would not exploit the decision to discriminate against non-Christians, force citizens to participate in prayers, or proselytize or disparage citizens of other faiths. View our model invocation policy.