Official Prayer

Greece’s Saga: How A Landmark Supreme Court Ruling Changed A New York Community

  Liz Hayes

Greece, N.Y., still has invocations during most town board meetings, and the majority of those invocations are still Christian. But those prayers have been interspersed with invocations from atheists and religious minorities, as well as moments of silence.

Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway, the two women who challenged the town’s invocation practice all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court five years ago, have different views about the outcome of their case, Greece v. Galloway.

For Galloway, who is Jewish, the Supreme Court’s May 2014 ruling that allowed Greece’s sectarian invocations to continue and the subsequent invocation policy enacted by the town board exacerbated her feelings of exclusion in her own community.

Having religious invocations “is another way of othering us,” said Galloway. “I didn’t really believe there should be invocations – no matter what you do, somebody is not going to be OK with it.

“To me … the reason we’re getting together (at government meetings) is not for prayer; we’re getting together because we have issues with the government. We want to hear what the government is doing. … If I wanted to go pray, I could go to a synagogue or wherever I choose to go to.”

Galloway said the last straw for her was the invocation policy Greece officials passed a few months after the ruling.

Since the Supreme Court said government officials can’t reject people from giving invocations on the basis of their religious or nonreligious beliefs, Greece (and municipal officials across the country) began to receive requests from atheists and other nontheists to offer invocations. Dan Courtney, an Americans United member from nearby Rochester, delivered a secular invocation in Greece just two months after the court’s decision.

But the following month, Greece officials enacted a new invocation policy that was drafted by the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which had represented Greece in the lawsuit. The policy required anyone giving an invocation to be a representative of an organized group or “assembly” based in Greece or having a town resident as a regular member. People concerned about the policy, which remains in effect today, noted there are few non-Christian “assemblies” in Greece and that religious minorities and nontheists don’t always belong to formal organizations.

Galloway was angered that the policy was enacted with no warning or public input, and that town officials continued to involve ADF, a group she opposes because of their support for discrimination against the LGBTQ community. She also felt a lack of support for the region’s Jewish community.

Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway

(PHOTO: AU’s Greece v. Galloway plaintiffs Linda Stephens, left, and Susan Galloway in April 2019.)

“I really got fed up,” she said.

Stephens, who is an atheist, decided to make the best of the court decision and the town policy. A member of the Atheist Community of Rochester, she has recruited members to give invocations or has given them herself at least once a year. In fact, she just offered one last month.

“I would’ve preferred that they have no prayers at all [at public meetings], but since the Supreme Court ruled the way they did, that’s not going to happen,” she said. “Atheists can give invocations now, and [so can] other people now, if they follow the policy.”

A review of Greece board meeting minutes available online for the past three years shows that about 7 percent of invocations were offered by atheists. Another 5 percent were offered by members of the Baha’i faith, the only religious minority group to offer prayers during that time. Just over 60 percent of the invocations were offered by Christian faith leaders. And about a quarter of the meetings began with moments of silence instead of invocations.

Stephens is relatively happy with the status quo, though she wishes Greece officials would more proactively seek out people of other faiths to offer invocations.

Although Stephens and Galloway faced threats and Stephens said her property was vandalized while the case was ongoing, Stephens said she is unaware of any mistreatment of the atheists and religious minorities who have offered invocations. Nor is she aware of any proselytism or coercion during the Christian invocations.

“I think the pastors in town were educated more [about what’s permitted during government invocations] throughout this whole process,” she said.

(TOP PHOTO: AU’s Greece v. Galloway team outside the Supreme Court in 2014: 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 professor Doug Laycock, who argued AU’s case.)

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