New York Town Changes Prayer Policy After Supreme Court Victory

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New York Town Changes Prayer Policy After Supreme Court Victory

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The new policy in Greece, New York, appears to cut out non-Christians and atheists from opening town meetings with an invocation.

In May, a closely divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled the town of Greece,New York’s policy of opening town meetings with sectarian prayer did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because, despite most invocations coming from Christians, the policy provided that both clergy and laypersons could deliver the invocation.

Therefore, the town argued, the policy didn’t discriminate and allowed anyone to participate.

Town officials, in the wake of that legal victory, issued a new policy that appears to test the limits of that Supreme Court ruling and make it difficult, if not impossible, for non-Christians to offer the invocation.

According to the new policy, released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Inquiry, “[t]he invocation shall be voluntarily delivered by an appointed representative of an Assemblies List for the Town of Greece.”

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That list will be compiled by the clerk of the town board, and will consist of “assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.” The “Assemblies List” will consist of “all ‘churches,’ ‘synagogues,’ ‘congregations,’ ‘temples,’ ‘mosques’ or other religious assemblies in the Town of Greece.”

The town’s new rules make no mention of whether or not an assembly of people like atheists that lack a “religious perspective” would be allowed to participate.

Greg Lipper, senior litigation attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, one of the groups that challenged the town of Greece’s initial invocation policy, called the change of policy a “gigantic bait and switch.”

According to Lipper, the record developed in the first legal challenge showed that while many non-Christians live in Greece, New York, their houses of worship are located outside the town, which would appear to exclude them from the “Assemblies List” to be promulgated under the new policy.

The policy allows residents to request in writing that the leader of their out-of-town house of worship come in and deliver the invocation, but that imposes a burden on those residents who live in Greece but worship elsewhere, Lipper said.

“What it prevents from happening is non-Christians in the town who simply want to deliver the invocation themselves being frozen out of the process, and that means that to the extent you are going to have religious diversity that religious diversity is excluded,” he said.

In July, an atheist delivered the first-ever secular invocation for the town of Greece. Lipper said it appears that person would be ineligible from delivering that same invocation under this new policy because he’s not part of a house of worship. The new policy appears to be based on a model policy devised this summer by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy organization that defended the town of Greece’s initial policy, said Lipper.

“The way this policy is designed really makes sense only if your goal is to make it as difficult as possible for non-Christians to deliver an invocation,” Lipper added. “And the fact that it was devised about a month after the first ever secular invocation in the town of Greece makes it even more suspicious.”