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New York town awaits ruling on moment of prayer

Published: Saturday, March 29, 2014 11:57 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
The Rev. Kevin Kisler of the Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Greece ends his moment of prayer at the start of a Greece Town Board meeting Dec. 6, 2007, in Greece, N.Y. This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the town's practice of opening board meetings with predominantly Christian-themed prayers violates the U.S. Constitution.

GREECE, N.Y. – At their most recent monthly meeting, the five members of the Greece Town Board took their seats, gaveled to order and moved quickly through the regular opening agenda:

Roll Call. (Check.)

Pledge of Allegiance. (Check.)

Moment of Prayer. (Check.)

Leaders of this town of 96,000 outside Rochester say they have no plans to shake up the longtime routine unless, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court orders them to.

A ruling could come any day now on whether the town violated the Constitution with its opening prayers because nearly every one in an 11-year span was overtly Christian. This month’s was no exception – a Baptist minister delivering a head-bowed, eyes-closed, 40-second invocation.

“Lord, we ask that the decisions that are made will be made with a lot of thought and with a lot of wisdom from you,” said the Rev. Mike Metzger of First Bible Baptist Church. “In Jesus’ name, I pray.”

Greece’s expeditious, matter-of-fact Christian prayer, with no mention of those who believe differently, is at the heart of a case with potentially wide-ranging impact: Governmental bodies from Congress and state legislatures to school boards often pause for prayer before getting down to business.

But if this town – which is neither rich nor poor and evenly split politically – has been swept up in this potentially divisive question, there has been little outward evidence. No signs, pickets, billboards or bumper stickers.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s being talked about at the grocery store, the coffee shop,” said Town Supervisor William Reilich, who characterized the initial lawsuit as the work of out-of-town interests with a broader anti-public prayer agenda. “It wasn’t like residents rose up against this.”

When asked their views, several people around town said they were eager to see what the high court would say and offered suggestions ranging from leaving the prayer as is to doing away with it all together.

“I prefer not to have it if some people feel uncomfortable,” said Jim Callahan, a 65-year-old sales rep.

“Prayer should definitely be accepted and is very much needed,” countered Aaron Rebis, a 21-year-old pizzeria employee. “If we get rid of it, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

The case, Greece v. Galloway, began in 2008 when town residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, complained that the Christian prayers at town board meetings made them uncomfortable. Every meeting from 1999 through 2007 had been opened with a Christian-oriented invocation.

“Originally, we really hoped that if we went in and talked to them, they would say, ‘Oh, we didn’t think about that,’ ” Galloway told The Associated Press on Friday.

“In government you should be encouraging participation and encourage the feeling of being included and being an important member of your community,” she said in a brief phone interview.

After the complaints, the town, in 2008, had a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation and a lay Jewish man deliver four of the prayers. But from January 2009 through June 2010, the prayer-givers were again invited Christian clergy, according to court documents.

Reilich said the town accepts requests from people of any religion to deliver the prayer and that the vast majority of residents view it as routine as the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ayesha Khan, the legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the suit on Galloway and Stephens’ behalf, said the women have received both support and criticism from neighbors. She said Stephens’ car was vandalized and someone dug up her mailbox and threw it into her pool.

The two residents lost their suit in U.S. District Court after the judge found that the town did not intentionally exclude non-Christians and that the content of the prayer was not intended to proselytize or demean other faiths. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town’s endorsement of Christianity.

“We would like to see the practice of legislative prayer be inclusive of all traditions, whether that includes Muslims and Buddhists but also nontheists,” Kahn said.

In hearing the case in November, the judges raised various scenarios that included having officials review the content of prayers to make sure they are not sectarian or seeing that ministers are routinely advised of the diversity of the town board audience.

Justice Samuel Alito was doubtful about the residents’ suggestion to eliminate explicit references to any religion, given the country’s religious diversity. “I just don’t see how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all of these groups,” he said.

Callahan, the sales rep, said that short of doing away with the prayer, the town board should not only honor requests from any religion – but also no religion.

“If someone says, ‘I prefer one week we don’t have a prayer,’ don’t have a prayer,” he said.

Jerry Figliole, 68, said he’s never felt forced to participate in the prayer at meetings he’s attended. The audience and board stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and then sit while the prayer is offered.

“It’s not like a service. It’s very short,” he said.

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