On Thursday, the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit found that the prayer policies of the town of Greece in upstate New York violated the Establishment Clause and aligned the town with Christianity. As the Establishment Clause prevents the government from being biased towards any particular religion over another, the policy of holding prayers at town board meetings in the NY town of Greece is unconstitutional.
The court observed, “The town’s desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that for more than two hundred years. But when one creed dominates others – regardless of a town’s intentions – constitutional concerns come to the fore.”
Two residents of Greece town had complained in 2007 that the town board only invited Christian clergy to deliver invocations. Following such a complaint, the next year the town invited a Wiccan priestess, a chairman of the local Baha’I congregation and a lay Jewish person to give the prayer. But since eight of the 12 prayers held at the town board were held by Christian clergy, the act of the town board has been deemed unconstitutional.
The town board and its supervisor were subsequently sued in 2008 by the two residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens challenging the practice of prayers under the Establishment Clause. The district court ruled in favor of the town finding that the town employees did not intentionally exclude clergy of any particular faith and did not lay any restriction upon the content of the prayers.
However, on Thursday, the 2nd Circuit reversed the decision of the lower court finding that the process by which speakers were selected for the town prayers had a Christian viewpoint. The court found that even though most of the congregations in the town of Greece were Christian, the town board, if it wished so, could have invited clergy from outside the borders of the town.
The town of Greece is expected to appeal the decision.
Joel Oster, representing the town of Greece said, “The court wants the town to be prayer monitors, to determine how many prayers in Jesus’ name are too many.”
However, Ayesha Khan, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs said, “”Municipalities need to ensure that no single religion is advanced in their prayers, and they have to take a fairly active role in ensuring constitutional compliance.”
In January, in a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear an appeal by Forsyth County and allowed a ruling of the 4th Circuit stopping sectarian prayers at county board meetings to remain.
The 2nd Circuit case is Galloway et al v. Town of Greece et al, No. 10-3635.