They’re still praying in Greece. That’s Greece, New York, a suburb of Rochester. Last November the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. For years the monthly meetings of the town board opened with a moment of silence, but in 1999, the new town supervisor decided meetings should be opened with a prayer. Since then, with the exception of four meetings, each session has been preceded by Christian prayers offered by various local religious leaders. A majority of the prayers invoke the name of Jesus Christ, and many clergy have delved deeply into explanations of Christian theology and the significance of Christian beliefs and holidays. All of this before town board meetings at which students are honored, new police and fire officials are sworn in, and people come to have their civic concerns addressed and petitions heard. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens are active members of their community and regularly attend town board meetings. One of them Jewish and the other an atheist, both were uncomfortable with the prayers held at the beginning of meetings and felt marginalized for not participating. Over the years, they have been chastised for their non-participation and told that if they didn’t like the prayers, they could leave. One guest chaplain said they were “in the minority and were ignorant of the history of our country.” When they filed a lawsuit challenging this practice, they became targets of threats and hostile actions. Although the US District Court ruled for the town, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously held that the town had affiliated itself with a single religion in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment. The Town of Greece appealed, and the Supreme Court has yet to issue its decision.
While non-sectarian prayers before state legislative sessions have been deemed constitutional, there is a vast difference between those types of proceedings and local government meetings which are inherently more intimate and provide visibility for community members who attend, and even more exposure for those who speak publicly at such gatherings. Will a majority of the justices hold that offering prayers from one unique religious tradition at town meetings is endorsement? And will the Court identify this type of coercion and pressure by a government body to follow a particular religious philosophy or be ostracized, as precisely the type of abuse the Establishment Clause was meant to prohibit? We should find out soon. Meanwhile, from a podium bearing the seal of the Town of Greece, the preaching goes on.