High court ruling favors prayer at council meeting

Updated: 05/05/2014 6:37 PM
Created: 05/05/2014 10:35 AM WHEC.com
By: Brett Davidsen

It is a major win for the town of Greece and prayers at council meetings. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that prayers can continue at council meetings. 

The Greece Town Board had begun its meetings with prayer for years before the lawsuit. Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court means prayers to start town board meetings does not violate the constitution.

This all began when two women, one Jewish and the other atheist, filed a lawsuit saying they were made to feel second class when they didn’t participate in the mostly Christian prayers. 

Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers are ceremonial and they are designed to quote "acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent" and not to exclude or coerce non-believers.

The case vaulted Greece into the national spotlight in a legal argument over freedom of speech and religion. While the argument is now settled, the two Greece residents who brought the case said they had no regrets and would do it all over again.

Susan Galloway said, "I’ve been one to not sit quietly while I see injustice and I will continue to do that."

Susan Galloway says she’s disappointed. A case, she and Linda Stevens, first brought before the courts beginning six years ago, ended Monday with a five to four decision by the nation’s highest court. The U.S. Supreme Court Monday ruled it is okay for the town of Greece to open its monthly board meetings with a prayer, even if those prayers routinely stress Christian beliefs. 

Greece Town Supervisor Bill Reilich said it was a victory, not just for this town, but for the entire nation.

Bill Reilich, Greece Town Supervisor, said, "My worry was not so much for the decision, my worry was for America and our right to freely speak and I thought that was something that was in danger. I'm glad this decision came down the way it did."

Stevens and Galloway argued the board meetings they attended made them feel like second class citizens when they didn't participate in the mostly Christian prayers. In his written opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers are largely ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.

Stevens, an atheist, says it has been a long fought battle, one she never thought the Supreme Court would ever take up. But Stevens and Galloway say they received a lot of support along the way.

Stevens said, “I don’t think this is over. It’s disappointing, but there are some good things that came out of this. It was an educational experience for the whole country."

Galloway said, "I also believe it got dialog going and it should go and it should continue because our country is changing and we're becoming more diverse."

The town, which never discontinued the practice during the court battle, says it will continue with those wishing to offer the opening prayer in the future are advised to call and sign up.

Daniel Mach is the director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. He issued a statement saying, "We are disappointed by today's decision. Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution. Town-sponsored sectarian prayer violates the basic rule requiring the government to stay neutral on matters of faith."

Congressman Chris Collins issued a statement saying, “I applaud today's decision by the Supreme Court, which will allow our nation to continue to be a place where people from around the world can come to escape religious persecution and pray within their communities as they see fit. It has been clear from the beginning that the Town of Greece did not violate the United States Constitution, which is why I signed an Amicus Curiae brief in support of the Town of Greece last August. The Town of Greece welcomed prayer from people of all backgrounds and beliefs. That practice embodied one of the core principles our nation was founded on - the freedom of religious expression without fear of government action. Today's decision is a victory for First Amendment advocates throughout our country.”

Rev. Jason J. McGuire, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, issued the following statement after the decision was announced, "The Supreme Court's decision today is important and much-needed, as it protects the religious liberty of all Americans and upholds the quintessentially American tradition of prayer at government proceedings. The Court's ruling clarifies once again that commencing government proceedings with prayer does not constitute an 'establishment of religion' in violation of the First Amendment. Further, the Court has reminded Americans that governing bodies which allow public prayer are not required to edit or regulate the content of the prayers that are offered, to go beyond the borders of their cities or towns to recruit a religiously diverse pool of prayer-givers, or to guarantee that no listeners are offended by what they hear during such prayers. So long as prayers at public meetings do not fall into a pattern of proselytizing others or denigrating different faiths, they do not violate the First Amendment."

Greece Town Supervisor Bill Reilich’s issued a statement today saying, “We gather as the Town Board of the Town of Greece, we gather as Americans, we gather as neighbors, and we start our meeting with a prayer.  And today we have received the affirmation from the United States Supreme Court that this practice can and WILL continue. Thank you all for joining the Town Board and I today.  I know for many of us this has been a very long journey. But today, we have finally reached the end of the road and the decision of the Supreme Court has been rendered. By a vote of 5-4 the United States Supreme Court has reversed the decision of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and has voted to uphold the practice of the Town of Greece in offering prayer before our meetings. It was the Opinion of the Supreme Court that and I quote, “The town of Greece does NOT violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer…” Just moments before the opinion was announced, the high court began its public session as it has for decades, “God save the United States and this honorable court”. In every legislative body I have personally ever served, the Monroe County Legislature, the New York State Assembly and now as the Supervisor of the Town of Greece, the meetings have opened with a prayer. As Americans we are free to pray, we support diversity, we support freedom and we support the Constitution of the United States, where free speech will always prevail.”

Credit: Sketch by Art Lien

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