Can an Atheist Pray in Greece?

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new public-prayer case.  At issue here is whether a town worked hard enough to include religious diversity in its public prayers.

The town of Greece, New York, outside of Rochester, has been accused of favoring Christianity in its pre-meeting prayers.  The Second Court of Appeals ruled in Galloway v. Town of Greece that the town meeting prayers had favored Christianity over other religions.

According to USA Today, the Arizona-based group Alliance Defending Freedom appealed to the US Supreme Court on behalf of the town.

SCOTUS decided in 1983’s Marsh v. Chambers that legislative meetings can be opened with a prayer, as long as that prayer does not favor one religion, denomination, or sect over another.   The Second Court of Appeals explicitly noted that this case does not challenge that precedent.  “We do not hold,” the court wrote, “that the town may not open its public meetings with a prayer or invocation.  Such legislative prayers, as Marsh holds and as we have repeatedly noted, do not violate the Establishment Clause.”

What is at issue here is whether or not Greece worked hard enough to include religious and non-religious diversity in its opening prayers. The original suit, brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, charged that the overwhelming majority of the prayers represented Christianity.

The court granted that the town had the intention to represent a proper diversity of religious beliefs, but in practice, most of the prayers implied that Christianity was the town’s religion.  As the court described, a permissible public-prayer policy must be

inclusive of multiple beliefs and makes clear, in public word and gesture, that the prayers offered are presented by a randomly chosen group of volunteers, who do not express an official town religion, and do not purport to speak on behalf of all the town’s residents or to compel their assent to a particular belief….

In other words, it is not enough for a town to allow a diversity of religion in public prayer.  According to the Second Court of Appeals, in any case, public meetings must work harder to dispel the perceptions of a “reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances” that the town tips one way or another.

Will SCOTUS agree?  Or will they rule that it is enough merely to welcome a diversity of belief?

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2 Comments

  1. The Supreme Court Just Kicked God Back Into America | I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here… | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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