By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
(CNN)– Linda Stephens has lived in her upstate New York community for more than three decades and has long been active in civic affairs.
But as an atheist, those views have put her at the center of a personal, political, and legal fight that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
The issue is public prayer at her local town board meetings, another contentious case over the intersection of faith and the civic arena.
The justices on Wednesday will hear arguments over whether Greece, New York, may continue sponsoring what it calls "inclusive" prayers at its open sessions, on government property.
Stephens and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway have challenged the policy, saying virtually all of those invited to offer legislative prayers over the years were Christians.
"It's very divisive when you bring government into religion," Stephens told CNN from her home.
"I don't believe in God, and Susan is Jewish, so to hear these ministers talk about Jesus and even have some of them who personally question our motives, it's just not appropriate."
The town of about 94,000 residents counters that after concerns from the two women and others, it sought diverse voices, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer invocations. Officials say they do not review the content of the remarks, nor censor any language.
"The faith of the prayer giver does not matter at all," said John Auberger, Greece's board supervisor, who began the practice shortly after taking office 1998. "We accept anyone who wants to come in and volunteer to give the prayer to open up our town meetings."
A federal appeals court in New York found the board's policy to be an unconstitutional violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which forbids any government "endorsement" of religion.
Those judges said it had the effect of "affiliating the town with Christianity."
"To the extent that the state cannot make demands regarding the content of legislative prayers," said Judge Guido Calabresi, "municipalities have few means to forestall the prayer-giver who cannot resist the urge to proselytize. These difficulties may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer, but they are not grounds on which to preclude its practice."
Some legal experts say while the high court has allowed public prayers in general, it has not set boundaries on when they might become too sectarian in nature.
"The case involves a test between two different kinds of legal rules," said Thomas Goldstein, SCOTUSblog.com publisher and a leading Washington attorney.
"The Supreme Court has broadly approved legislative prayer without asking too many questions. But in other cases where the government is involved with religion, it has looked at lots of different circumstances. So we just don't know whether this court will be completely approving of legislative prayers in this instance."
The justices are now being asked to offer more firm guidelines over when and if such public prayers are constitutionally acceptable.
Galloway and Stephens say the elected board of the community outside Rochester almost always invited Christian clergy to open the meetings, usually with sectarian prayers. And they say they felt "marginalized" by the practice.
"When we tried to speak with the town, we were told basically if we didn't like the prayers, we didn't have to listen," said Stephens, "or could stand out in the hallway while they were going on."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington-based group that is representing the two women, cited records showing that between 1999 and 2010, approximately two-thirds of the invocations contained the words "Jesus Christ," Jesus," Holy Spirit," or "Your Son."
And the lawsuit claims that from 1999 through 2007, every meeting had a Christian-only invocation. Following the complaints from the plaintiffs, four other faiths were invited in 2008, including a Baha'i leader and a Jewish lay person.
The plaintiffs say the Christian-only invocations resumed from January 2009 through June 2010. They claim those invited to the monthly meetings were selected by a city employee from a local guide that had no non-Christian faiths listed.
"Politics and religion simply don't mix, and they certainly don't mix in the local context of the Greece town council," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, AUSCS executive director.
"The town seems to take the position that because once or twice over a decade, it hears from someone of a different religion, that somehow is inclusive. It trivializes what's going here - a local government that should be willing and interested in participation of all its citizens, it wants those citizens to participate in an almost inevitably Christian prayer, in order to begin doing their business."
While the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York last year unanimously ruled against Greece's policy, other courts around the country have found such invocations - if inclusive and limited in scope - to be permissible.
Congress regularly opens its sessions with a prayer. Wednesday's invocation by House Chaplain the Rev. Patrick Conroy began: "Eternal God, we give you thanks for giving us another day. Once again, we come to ask wisdom, patience, peace, and understanding for the members of this people's House."
Nearly 120 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, along with several state attorneys general have filed supporting legal briefs backing the city. So has the Obama administration.
"The history of prayers offered in connection with legislative deliberation in this country makes clear that a legislative body need not affirmatively solicit a court-mandated variety of different religious faiths– from inside and outside the borders governed by the legislative body– in order to avoid running afoul of the Establishment Clause," said Justice Department lawyers' in their amicus brief.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal ministry based in Scottsdale, Arizona, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Greece Town Board, saying the Supreme Court has upheld the practice of government bodies "to acknowledge America's religious heritage and invoke divine guidance and blessings upon their work."
"A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like," said Brett Harvey, an attorney for the group. "Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconstitutional."
Stephens realizes the stakes are high for her community and for the law as a whole. But on a personal level, this legal fight has been tough.
"I've received something of a backlash, both Susan and me," the retired librarian said. "Threatening letters, some vandalism to my property, things like that. The prayers, and all the controversy, it makes you feel like an outcast, like we don't count in our town."
The case is Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway (12-696). A ruling is expected by early summer.
For all of you angry and uncivil atheists, pay close attention as Dr. Tyson educates Dr. Dawkins.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2xGIwQfik&w=640&h=390]
For all of you angry and uncivil Christians, revisit Mathew 7.
Youtube – Neil DeGrasse Tyson – The Perimeter of Ignorance
For all of the angry and uncivil Christian hypocrites, read a Bible.
christians cry because their special status is being taken away. they're afraid to be equal.
Aye, these sneetches with the stars on thars do not like this Sylvester McMonkey McBean trying to make everyone equal...
To them "equality" actually equals "communism" since they demand their right to be superior if they want to. And so the Tea Party was born. I guess it's a little late for a morning after pill...
"...if we didn't like the prayers, we didn't have to listen..."
Always the response of bullies in a position of power.
Which is very similar to this,
"If they don't like it, they can go back to Africa."
Is she really being bullied?
yes...she is. She has had threats and vandalism to her property.
Or, "If I don't like what you are saying, I will go to court and try to make it illegal for you to say it".
Say what you want as a citizen. Say what you want as a legislator. The problem comes in when the government invites someone in to speak on behalf of the government, which is implied by bringing these people in to open the legislature with prayer.
One option would be for the legislators themselves to open the session with prayer. If any legislator could volunteer to do so, I would have no problem.
How about all the Christians have a meeting before the government meeting and have their prayer there? Or perhaps they could pray before entering the room. Or they could pray in the room before the meeting. Or they could pray to themselves any time during the meeting. Or perhaps after the meeting they could pray. None of that is good enough for these people. They have to halt the meeting and subject everyone to pleading to supernatural beings for its mystical blessings.
I think the point is that it's already illegal...she just wants the law enforced.
From a legal perspective atheism is protected the same as any religion. They should at least offer the chance for an atheist to speak. By the way, I'm aware that atheism isn't a religion.
A mandatory pre-meeting prayer, regardless of whether an atheist gives it, should not be allowed. It is a religious ritual and amounts to an establishment of said religious ritual in opposition to the First Amendment of our constltution. It's quite simple, and should never be allowed. Sadly it has been "grandfathered" in and because it has been allowed for so long it will take some time to rid ourselves of this useless and moronic religious ritual.
My gay friend and I sneaked out everytime the prayer is conducted and nobody stops us.
We find it as the best time for a quickie inside the rest room while others are busy.
You are aick ppl. Having a little short prayer isn't terrible and maybe if it hadn't been taken out of schools and other places the USA won't have such mean and hateful ppl in it.
My CA town council has an "invocation. – always a xtian minister though – big waste of everyone's time and city employee pay.
An invocation before important events is an admission that the people involved are sheep and need to be led to whatever conclusion is right and good. People who need it have not yet gotten up on their hind legs and taken ownership of their own problems. They really shouldn't be called upon to solve the problems of a community.
Yeah, those Christians sure have left those old ways of inquisition in the past ... or have hey.
As an atheist, I am always in two minds about these cases. I can’t help but consider these prayers, even if Christian based, as harmless foolery. There are some areas where I feel the government wrongfully imposes Christianity on the population: –
(i) prohibitions on buying or consuming alcohol on Sunday, the so called “Blue Laws.”
(ii) anti-abortion measures
(iii) anti-contraception measures
(iv) anti-gay measures
(v) anti science measures, such as teaching the idiocy of intelligent design in school
I’m sure I could think of a few more.
Here, however, you have a small prayer being offered by a city council. Who cares? I think it is ridiculous that, in the 21st Century, the simpletons on the Greece Council think the being they believe created the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, is monitoring their meeting and will aid them in their decisions, but it is harmless.
Not only that, but we atheists suffer public repercussions from it. We are seen as bullying and whiners. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public, we hand the sky-fairy team a victory every time we pick these trivial fights. We may take out the trivial bad guy,” but it seems hardly worth the cost in terms of dollars and public perception.
I would have to disagree. Wherever and whenever religion is allowed into our government, it allows a mindset for other appearances of religion in it as well, as you have noted above.
Worrying about public perception is always a fatal endeavor. These religious freaks need to be taken down with the full force of logic and reasoning. Our civilization can not afford to be forced to backpedal into the dark ages on the grounds that we ~must~ be nice to them.
I will not give them one inch of space for their constant tactics to degrade humanity back to the dark ages.
how do "religious freaks" take us back to the dark ages? exaggerate much?
Right. Much better to believe that we are just higher form of animal that migically evolved.
No the magic would be the creation of everything by an all powerful god 6-10,000 years ago. Evolution would be the non-magical, correct way to explain how we came to be. There, fixed that for you.
Government meetings led by prayer is far from harmless. It is an endorsement and the courts will surely see it as such! It is divisive towards anyone who isn't like them and it's intentional.
I really don't care if the parts per million are low, I don't want to swim in a pool that others have pee'd in.
Christians, stop peeing in our pool.
If all Christians pee simultaneously, all atheists will surely get drowned, altogether.
What a messy death for atheists.
bootyfunk your name speaks mountains sucks to be you now crawl back in your hole
1)Use the reply function
2)Don't be a dick
Can't do either? Float away, brat.
Hey, Bootyfunk has a great name and speaks with a clear vision.
Since when is "booty funk" a great alias?
funk: music that combines elements of rhythm and blues and soul music and that is characterized by a percussive vocal style, static harmonies, and a strong bass line with heavy downbeats
booty: 1: plunder taken (as in war); especially: plunder taken on land as distinguished from prizes taken at sea 2. a rich gain or prize
bootyfunk: plundering great rhythm and blues...
What exactly did you think it meant, Under?
I shipped my pants
thank you for defending my funkadelic name!
people with no funk take life too seriously.
I got your back Booty ;)
buongiorno has no funk in his life and obviously thinks "good day" in italian is a witty handle.
If people would just keep their religions to themselves, life would be more peaceful.
but their savior directed them to go forth and be annoying pr1cks.....
I'm guessing that if you saw a child playing in the middle of the street, you might tell the child to get out of the street. If you saw a car coming, you may even yell to get the child's attention. You might even run in the street and pull the child out of the street. You might even do it if someone else came by and said "I don't believe in cars.... let the child alone". Of course, I could be wrong, maybe if someone said they were offended by the fact that you believe in cars, you may just decide to keep your beliefs to yourself.
That's a terrible analogy.
I can see the car. I know cars exist. I drive my own car. I'm aware of what cars can and can't do. I'm aware of how cars can affect a human body if they crash into each other...
I cannot see your invisible sky daddy. There is no proof of your mythical sky daddy having any affect on our lives.
Understand the difference?
Except, in this scenario you are warning the child about a car that cannot be seen, heard, or felt. Try saving children from imaginary cars and you will likely be fitted for a strait jacket.
Once again, conservative Christians play the victim when they are, in fact, the bullies.
We can only hope that one day conservative Christians will stop persecuting others.
That is coming, sooner then we think.
The xtian kids are moving away from their psycko folks and abandoning the religion.
Their folks will die off, and we will be rid of this sick religion.
Can't happen fast enough.
hasn't happened in 2000 years
Very much so. Let's all remember that this case is:
"Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway" (12-696) and was filed by "The Alliance Defending Freedom" to overturn the existing Federal Court ruling.
The Town of Greece is now the plaintiff.
MATHEW 16: 13-18 NOTHING CAN ALTER THE WORD OF GOD!
Well, except for the fact that it has been altered many, many times via numerous translations down the ages, even if you assume the originals were even god at all.
So, nice sentiment, but faulty.
Except Jesus, of course, who convinced him to change many of his original commands. For instance, God's long list of reasons to kill people were thrown out.
Oh, right. I almost forgot about that. Whatever Jesus said is supposed to be god's word too, though, maybe...I think?
You win the prize Boingo.
You are the first xtian zombie to quote us some nonsense from the babble today.
The "word of god" was altered in every line of the Bible, because every line of the Bible was written by man.
Except a large house fire. Pig 13: 2
You do realize that the bible was not written in English, right? So, every version you have read was altered... significantly. So, if you believe the bible is the word of God, you have never actually read the word of God. I am of course assuming that you cannot read the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. But that is not much of a stretch.
Here's a suggestion: How about replacing the prayer before their meetings, they all repeat a pledge that they will put aside personal agendas and instead work together for the common good of the community?
Then how would the Christians get their free advertising?
Congress needs to take your advice.
that's not going to happen. The DOJ even filed an amicus brief here.
There are more than enough precedents for the plaintiffs to argue that the federal court ruling overstepped what is 'customary'. This case could set a very dangerous precedent indeed.
GOPer, I was referring more to the "they will put aside personal agendas and instead work together for the common good of the community" part of Think's post. They are wholly dysfunctional, opening prayer notwithstanding.
Their prayer dosn't bother me; their inability to govern does.
I'm entirely with you there. Prayers by the House and Senate Chaplains are the least of our problems with the 113th Congress.
I am concerned about this case though. Even not considering the conservative slant on the bench, I think there is a good chance the Town of Greece will win this case. It will have repercussions.
The SCOTUS cannot rule in favor of Galloway et al without questioning the behavior of Congress. This is why the DOJ amicus brief is so relevant.
We are in agreement there, GOPer. If the SCOTUS truly upholds the Constitution, they will vote accordingly.
Once upon a time not so long ago, slavery was customary.
Don't Christians realize, that if they keep pushing their religion in open forums....they will create opposition. If Christians, in fact all religions, just branded themselves but at the same time keep their religion private, they might gain more followers. Nobody wants religion's hand forced on them, look at Jehovah Witnesses. I came to my religion because I sought it out and I feel like it was looking for me at the same time. If I was pushed crap on me all the time, I would never join that religion. Keep it where it belongs and interject your opinions in the correct venues, like when someone brings up religion at a dinner party or something.
This is another example of "Christians" exposing their beliefs in weak and false doctrines, and actually damaging the spreading of the true Gospel, by dragging God into the vile realm of man's politics. Does God need man to legislate faith? Did Christ call His chosen people to use the governments of man to proclaim the Gospel of Salvation? Satan delights in this sort of misguided waste of energy. Look at the acrimony and confusion it creates.
Let the kingdoms of men rule over men. Besides, God places in power only those who He chooses, for His ultimate purposes.
Why can't you religious people just keep your god to yourselves?
Why do you insist on making it part of our secular government?
If you want religion in all aspects of life so badly, convert to Islam and move to any muslim run country.
As an agnostic I find the luxury of not having a religion is being open to whatever comes out of the mouths of anybody who wants to talk about anything. I'd rather pray to Jesus, Satan, Loki and Sponge Bob all in the same half hour than have anybody think they had the right to tell me to shut up.
But that is the problem with a certain fundie class of US citizens, they want you to go along with their god and in the exact way they interpret it to be.
They want us to be a Xtian version of Saudi Arabia, and would kill your children to make that happen.
Kill your children? Really?
Yeah Batwing, religious people will kill whomever to show just how much they love and follow their god.
Look to any religious run country, they kill other people's kids all the time in the name of their god(s).
Ever read the babble?
Filled with kids getting killed, in pretty horrific ways too.
Nothing proves you love of god than taking your gun and killing another human being with it.
And the Xtians in this country are armed up big time, and lusting for the chance to use all that fire power.
I'd be really surprised Nik if in this day and age you'd find homicidal Xtians in the US. In the weaponry department think of it like this. You can get a gun for yourself now if you want one. I don't own one myself but I don't like the idea of someone telling me I can not have one. Someone making my decisions for me is disempowering.
People have an opportunity to talk during the citizen comments, but our government shouldn't be giving religion special privileged over it's citizens.
You're right about that, all represented should have an equal chance at the microphone.
No one is trying to shut you up, just as long as you are attending to the business at hand, no one wants to hear me quote from my "good book" and God, "Dr. Seuss" I am Sam, Sam I am............sound familiar?
I want to here it. I love Dr. Seuss I'd love your creative expression more. I'd support your right to read from it.
*hear*..sorry trying to type and cook at the same time
It's admirable that you have that notion but unfortunately there are a lot of Christians that have strong adversion to other faiths. I was trying to get into a relationship with a girl and everything was fine until she "found out" that I was Buddhist. She totally acted differently after that point, like I had some sort of disease. Buddhism? One of the more positive religions in the world, and I was the freak?
I work with a bunch of Xtian fundies, and since they found out I don't believe in any god(s), I have become an outcast.
So much for all that love they claim they have for their fellow man.
P.M. and Nik. In my opinion you are both arguing for my point not against it. I'd love to hear a Buddhist prayer before a meeting. I would like an atheist to have a chance to go up there and talk about space time. It's about sharing not about shutting up.
Why do we have to have anything before a secular governmental meeting?
Why can't we just have the meeting, without hearing anything about anyone's opinion on god(s)?
I actually agree, I don't want people to shut up. But on the other hand, being a Buddhist, I wouldn't go into a meeting and spout off passages or prayers from the Dharma. I would interject my beliefs only if they would be pertinant to the discussion and in such a way to not make it sound like I'm preaching my beliefs. Prayers in meetings are like commercials, everyone wants to fast forward through them to get to the show. Is Sunday not enough to have public prayers? I'm sure good Christians also pray when they eat and when they go to bed. Why would they want to do it in a venue that has non-believers or believers of other faiths present?
All I'm saying is this. If people have to be quiet about stuff that doesn't exist, what is going to happen when people need to talk about the stuff that does.
@Praise be to Batman – I think you may be blurring the line between freedom of speak and the separation of church and state. No one is prohibiting anyone from preaching or praying to anyone or anything they want. But in the setting of a government office, I don't feel it's appropriate. "Atheists" don't have a set of beliefs, so speaking of "space/time" would only makes sense if that person happened to be into astrophysics. And even then, is the beginning of a government function the best place to do so? Again, I don't feel it's the appropriate venue. True separation of church and state protects everyone's religious liberty, not just those that happen to be in the majority.
"Because the authors of the Const.itution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconst.itutional."
That is right! May God bless our land!
A Rabbi leading those invocatory prayers, quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14 would be a great blessing.
That is a fantastic verse to call to remembrance.
What did King David,King Solomon, George Washington & John Adams have in common?
–They all prayed.
–We shall also pray. :)
well that was waste of your time
Thanks for including George Washington, a well known NON believer of Christian myth.
The Consti-tution NEVER mentions God, Jesus, Christ, or Christianity.
Please read it someday so you will be familiar with what it says.
Why not just say constitution? No need to add separators. View source to see how.
Because it's kind of tedious to have to add tags all the time.
I don't think you'll find James Madison invoking God's blessings anywhere.
"this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconst.itutional" Anything, tradition or not, which is illegal should be stopped. Any government endorsement of any religion is illegal. It's up to the courts to determine if this is an endorsement.
"Because the authors of the Const.itution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconst.itutional." That is right! "
They also owned slaves while they were writing it and for nearly a hundred years after, I must assume you believe that should also not be deemed unconstltutional?
Many owned slaves too. Nice traditions.
I don't go to church and I don't want church being brought to me.
no religion in gov't buildings.
no religion in the courthouse.
no religion in the schools.
want to practice your religion? do it at home, in a church or in a park. but don't expect your religion to be held above all other beliefs. pray before you come to work.
christians look at this as an attack on christianity - it's not. it's making all beliefs equal. it's saying our gov't isn't a place for your religious beliefs. it's not that christians are being attacked - it's that they are having their special privileges taken away so their religion isn't held above all other beliefs.
A certain segment of the Christian population today is so whiny and co-dependent. Which is amazing when you consider Christmas is a national holiday and their houses of worship enjoy tax-exempt status. On top of that, they want everyone to believe exactly as they do.
Talk about insecure, self-centered, spoiled brats.
My best friend is unemployed. Food stamps would only give her $12 a month. It's the church that is giving her food from their food pantry.
If you want to gripe there are no gods in existence I'll agree with you. If you want to take away money from a church that is actually helping people and give it to a government that isn't I can't agree with your thinking.
And don't give me any lip about how she should have gotten an education, the woman has her masters degree.
WOW, where to begin? No recipient of food stamps has ever been given that low an amount. Its simply not possible. Secondly; your friend is not smart, does not have skills, and gets all the $ she is worth right now. Which is none. Third; it's very easy to be generous when the church doesn't pay ANY TAXES EVER.
I used to work at Best Buy and we had clergymen come in and buy things tax free that no church needs. Its not like they're buying holy water and crosses at church! lol. They're buying things for themselves and others in the church and scamming the taxpayers for big screen tvs and video games.
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