Flip-Flop Of Town That Promised Inclusivity Trips Up Right-Wing Media's Pro-Legislative Prayer Argument

The New York town of Greece, whose policy of allowing sectarian Christian prayers to be delivered before town meetings was the subject of a recent First Amendment challenge before the Supreme Court, has now adopted a new set of rules that appear to exclude non-believers from this practice -- discrimination that the town's defenders in right-wing media pretended didn't exist.

In May, the conservative justices of the Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that the prayer offered before this town's meetings was permissible under the First Amendment -- despite the fact that “the invocations given ... were predominantly sectarian in content,” which “repeatedly invoked a single religion's beliefs,” as Justice Elena Kagan explained in her dissent. Yet the majority found this apparent preference for Christian prayers constitutionally acceptable because the town assured the Court “that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.” It was this claim that the prayer policy was non-discriminatory and would allow non-Christians to participate that the Court, as well as right-wing media outlets, relied upon.

After the decision, Washington Post columnist George Will attacked the Jewish and atheist plaintiffs who challenged the town's prayer policy, calling them “prickly plaintiffs” and “flimsy people” who were “theatrically offended” over nothing more than “brief and mild occasional expressions of religiosity.” The Wall Street Journal also celebrated the conservative decision in Town of Greece, and specifically hailed the inclusivity the town of Greece had told the Court it practiced:

The town of Greece used mostly Christian prayers because its citizens are predominantly Christian. Yet when rabbis and clerics of other faiths asked to give the prayer, they were welcome. Even a Wiccan priestess was allowed to issue what we suppose was an anti-prayer. Council members and visitors were under no obligation to pray along and there was no evidence of punishment or even disapproval for anyone who didn't.

Both Will and the Journal ignored the fact that town officials extended those invitations to non-Christians only after the lawsuit was filed.

Now it appears the town of Greece has backed away from the inclusivity that right-wing media touted. As the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported, last week the town adopted a new policy for its legislative prayer that is being condemned as “an enormous bait and switch” because it seems to bar the non-believers the Supreme Court claimed were allowed to participate. Designed by the religious right's Alliance Defending Freedom -- the legal organization who led the Court to believe that “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation” -- the new guidelines require that speakers represent a local, established religious organization that “regularly meet[s] for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.”

From the Democrat and Chronicle:

The Town Board adopted its first formal policy on the matter last week, roughly 3½ months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the board's practice of opening meetings with a prayer as long as local officials do not discriminate against minority faiths.

Until now, the town had no written rules on selecting who can give an invocation.

The policy says that now, speakers will represent “assemblies with an established presence in the town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.” Assemblies outside the town can participate too if at least one Greece resident attends them regularly and specifically asks in writing for them to be included.

Those rules fly in the face of what the town told the U.S. Supreme Court, which was that people of any persuasion, including lay people and atheists, could give invocations, said Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Nowhere do the rules mention non-religious people, nor individuals who do not belong to an organized religious group.

“It's an enormous bait and switch,” said Lipper, whose group represented plaintiffs Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, in the suit that reached the nation's top court[.]


Dan Courtney of Hamlin, an atheist who delivered an invocation before the Town Board in July, said the new rules appear to disqualify residents who do not belong to an organized religious group. Courtney himself would not likely be allowed to give an invocation now, as he does not live in the town or belong to any assembly there, he said.

“I was surprised that they would be quite so blatant about the discrimination they wish to impose,” Courtney said Monday.

David Niose, legal director for the American Humanist Association, said in a statement that the policy shows the town's argument to the Supreme Court was “completely disingenuous” and that its claims of inclusiveness “were never sincere.”

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