Official Prayer

Five Years Ago, The Supreme Court Handed Down A Key Ruling On Government Invocations. Where Do Things Stand Now?

  Liz Hayes

Five years ago this Sunday, the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for invocations at government meetings when it issued its opinion in Greece v. Galloway, a case brought by Americans United on behalf of Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, two women from Greece, N.Y., who challenged the town board’s practice of opening public meetings with exclusively Christian prayers.

While Greece was a disappointing decision for church-state separation advocates seeking to make public meetings more welcoming and inclusive for people with diverse religious and nonreligious beliefs, the court’s opinion didn’t give municipal officials free rein to have evangelizing prayers at public meetings.

“Greece made clear that government bodies must not discriminate based on religion in selecting people to deliver invocations, must not permit invocations that proselytize or disparage any religion, and must not pressure members of the public to take part in invocations,” said AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser.

The results of the Greece decision have been mixed as some elected officials have struggled to comply with the nuances of the Supreme Court’s opinion. Here’s a quick summary of what’s happened with invocations in the past five years (for a deeper dive, see this story in the May edition of our Church & State magazine):

  • Some government bodies have enacted unconstitutional policies that bar nontheists from offering invocations. Americans United and allies have filed federal lawsuits against both the leadership of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Brevard County Commission in Florida on behalf of nontheists who are wrongfully being excluded from offering secular prayers.

Federal courts have already ruled in AU’s favor in both cases, but the elected officials have appealed to higher courts in an attempt to keep their discriminatory policies in place. Luchenitser presented the case of AU’s Brevard plaintiffs to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 12, and he is scheduled to argue the Pennsylvania plaintiffs’ case before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 17.

In another case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in April incorrectly upheld the U.S. House of Representatives’ rules that block people from giving secular invocations.

  • Other elected officials have tried to continue offering overwhelmingly Christian prayers themselves, which has been met with mixed reactions from the courts. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 struck down this practice by Rowan County, N.C., Commissioners. The same year, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the opposite when it upheld a similar prayer practice by Jackson County, Mich., Commissioners. (Americans United submitted friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases, and AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued in support of Peter Bormuth, a Druid who was disparaged by Jackson County officials when he challenged their policy.) The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to hear the appeals filed in these cases, despite the arguments of each side that the decisions had created a “circuit split” – the situation when two federal circuit courts of appeals have reached differing opinions.
  • Fortunately, not all citizens have to take their government officials to court in order to gain equal representation and respect for their religious and nonreligious beliefs. Public officials across the country are opening invocations to nonbelievers and religious minorities or doing away with invocations altogether. While the Pennsylvania House is shunning nontheists, the Pennsylvania Senate in March allowed one of AU’s clients to offer a secular invocation. AU members Texas have offered groundbreaking secular invocations in El Paso and San Antonio. In March, prominent “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta offered the first secular invocation to the DuPage County, Ill., Commissioners on the outskirts of Chicago.  

Even Greece, N.Y., has allowed nontheists to give secular invocations under a new invocation policy enacted after the Greece ruling. Linda Stephens, one of AU’s plaintiffs, said she’s offered several invocations on behalf of Atheist Community of Rochester, including one in April.

Better awareness of religious diversity is one of the silver linings of the disappointing Greece decision, according to Linda.

 “The great thing that’s come out of this is it sparked an interest in atheists and secular people to begin delivering invocations at government meetings,” Linda told me last month. She said many atheists “don’t want to come out of the closet. But now, when people see them giving these invocations and realize they’re their neighbors and people they know and not scary people, it’s been really good for the atheist community.”

Stay tuned next week for more reflections on the impact of the Greece decision from Linda and her co-plaintiff Susan Galloway.

(PHOTO: AU’s Greece v. Galloway team outside the Supreme Court: From left, Barry Lynn and Ayesha Khan, then AU’s executive director and legal director; plaintiffs Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, and University of Virginia law professor Doug Laycock, who argued AU’s case.)

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