Atheist gets her day at the Supreme Court
November 1st, 2013
04:39 PM ET

Atheist gets her day at the Supreme Court

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.

Felt marginalized

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."

Different rulings

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • Church and state • Courts

soundoff (6,237 Responses)
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    February 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm |
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    January 29, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
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    December 5, 2013 at 9:19 am |
  4. redzoa

    For anyone actually interested, here's a source for the filings in the case and some relevant legal/historical background on the issue:


    November 24, 2013 at 2:38 am |
    • Science Works

      Legal stuff, creationists do not like that.

      Like the Dover transcripts.

      November 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  5. Cory (Phoenix Ares)

    ...“or could stand out in the hallway while they were going on.”

    There you go right there. Go outside until they finish.

    November 21, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Let's imagine. . .

      You have a legitimate reason to appear before a town council to request they consider changing a regulation so you can open a home for battered women and their children. You do not participate in the pre-council rituals, and it is clear members of the council are of a different cult and are not amused that you did not participate. Are you confident that your request will be treated fairly?

      What's so hard about "No religion in government ever?"

      November 25, 2013 at 4:06 am |
      • Brian

        now youre just making uyp rhetorical crap to make excuses..youthink that happens all the time..? youre not looking at reality....the people praying would not be the ones leading...duuuuh

        November 25, 2013 at 4:08 am |
        • HotAirAce

          Sorry, you are wrong. People form first impressions all the time, and religious cult membership is a powerful factor.

          November 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    November 11, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Maligning atheists on a daily basis

      Does nothing to further your prayer campaign.

      November 11, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • Dandintac

      Prayer changes things? Really? You keep repeating this over and over again, and it has changed nothing at all.

      Tell you what–line up a bunch of amputees. Devout religious ones. Ones that even believe in your particular brand of religion. Then let's get every single person in your religion to pray that a single one of their limbs will grow back. Let's get a bunch of live TV cameras, scientists, controlled conditions to prevent trickery. Then, let's all pray. Let's see if it changes anything at all with regards to these people's lost limbs. That would be a smashing opportunity for God to prove his existence to any doubters.

      November 23, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
      • rick

        That day will come. What I don't understand is why do you athiests spend so much time and money on something you can't see and as you say "doesn't exist"? If God doesn't exist, why are you fighting something that is not there? I call that shadow boxing. If you don't like it, walk away from it. Don't forget, religious people have rights too. You people make it into politics just so you can make a law against it.

        November 26, 2013 at 9:54 am |
        • tallulah13

          Those who are in the majority seldom see the need for equality for those who are in the minority. You are happy, so why should we make waves?

          Fortunately for those of us who love freedom, this nation is based on equal rights for all, not just for the majority. Your religion doesn't get a free pass just because most Americans adhere to it. Might does not make right, at least in the legal system of this land.

          November 26, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • tallulah13

      Your opinion is duly noted.

      November 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
    • Nogods

      The only thing prayer changes is the sounds coming out of your mouth.

      November 25, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  7. Bobbie Jo Justice

    first born of egypt, sodom and gomorrah, flood during the time of noah.....ask yourself, why would any sane person worship a mass murdering child killing god?

    answer: they wouldn't.

    November 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm |
    • lol??

      OK, what's the punch line?? None?? Oh, I see.Another shaggy dog story. Oh, well, anti-humour and anti-matter are just like EVOLUTION. There everywhere, you just have to see, err believe.

      November 9, 2013 at 9:23 am |
      • Maddy

        Are you denying these things are in the Bible?

        November 9, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  8. One one

    Does the bible say you must pray out loud and make a public display of it in order for god to listen ? Is praying silently to yourself as effective as praying out loud ? If god listens to silent prayers equally as public display prayers , why must Christians pray out loud and make a public display of it ? No one is proposing that anyone cannot pray silently to themselves.

    November 8, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
    • Carter

      Christians are naturally insecure, weak folk.

      November 8, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
      • lol??

        "fear" AND "not"
        occurs in 144 verses in the KJV, including 63 exact phrases shown first.

        Psychopaths are naturally fearless copycat machines who prefer the rush of mob activity.

        November 9, 2013 at 8:56 am |
        • Maddy

          Unicorns are also mentioned in the KJV. Looks like you have the psychopathy covered.

          November 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • Seriously

        If you're going to "bait" someone shouldn't you at least try to be a little subtle about it?

        November 10, 2013 at 10:34 am |
      • Christians

        Carter, dude!

        Apparently, we are not the one who rushed to the SCOTUS just because we felt that we feel bad about something we lacked of believing.

        November 24, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Dandintac

      "Is praying silently to yourself as effective as praying out loud?"
      Actually, if I remember correctly, the Bible actually says Christians are supposed to pray to themselves.

      But that's not the point. It's not that they can't pray–they can pray anytime they want, and they know they can.

      They just want to push religion on to the rest of us, especially through the Government–or any other means possible. All too many Christians love captive audiences.

      Christianity lost its best argument when they were no longer allowed to burn people for not believing.

      November 24, 2013 at 2:17 am |
    • rick

      They do it in a church. Why not? If you don't want to pray then don't. You don't like people telling you what you can and can't do, so don't tell us what we can and can't do. If we had a little more religion around here, we might just have a little less crime. Sure would save this country a lot of money.

      November 26, 2013 at 10:00 am |
      • Doc Vestibule

        Except that the overwhelming majority of American prisoners are Christians.
        Even Jeffrey Dahmer was baptised while behind bars.
        Sure he ra/ped and ate a few boys, but so long as he felt bad about it and promised Jesus never to do it again, he's up in Heaven enjoying all the Soylent Veal he can eat.

        November 26, 2013 at 10:03 am |
        • Brian

          ANd also, HOW MANY of those in prison were Christian BEFORE going to prison? as I said youre being very deceiving Doc

          November 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
        • Doc Vestibule

          Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist blog recently filed under the Freedom of Information Act to receive data on the religious affiliation of inmates in the federal prison system.
          According to the information that Mehta received, of the 218,000 inmates that responded, only 161 identified as atheists.
          Atheists make up 0.07% of the prison population
          W. T. Root, professor of
          psychology at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, examined 1,916 prisoners and said
          "Indifference to religion, due to thought, strengthens character," adding
          that Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists and Free-Thinkers are absent from
          penitentiariers or nearly so.
          In a nation wherein the overwhelming majority of the populace claims Christianity as their religion, it is a fair bet that even before entering the penal system, nearly all criminals call themselves Christian.

          November 26, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  9. Opposing View

    I believe in God, and I believe in praying. But to force a whole group of people to say some sort of prayer in a public setting is just not the right approach. Why? Because, although praying is a good thing in the right place and at the right time, to do so in an environment that is mixed with unbelievers is definitely NOT the right place or time. And the only thing you will accomplish by even doing such a thing is to generate animosity among the unbelievers and to give them the very ammunition they need to fight back against what you believe. And fight they will. Which is precisely what you see in the current Court case. So asking for prayer in a public setting is not a wise thing to do. If the believers would use more discretion in their public ceremonies and events, and not ask for prayers when unbelievers are present, then such court cases and challenges would not even exist…

    November 8, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • One one

      Absolutely ! The last thing you want to do is start a meeting where controversial issues are to be discussed with something that will foster divisions before the meeting has even started.

      November 8, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  10. IslandAtheist

    Justice Breyer seemingly outed himself as an atheist during oral arguments.

    November 8, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  11. maddog

    "You do realize that the United States is the secular nation, correct? And that religion has no role in the government", correct?

    u do realize horus ain't cuttin it. u do understand seriously that u can't compete with a real scholar, correct? i no u said this is a christian nation and u mistakenly believe christ cannot influence our government

    November 7, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Your spelling is atrocious. Your comment was nonsensical.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • Akira

      Taking quotes of context makes you look rather ignorant.

      You also have never displayed any scholarly traits, so you must be referencing someone else in your mistake-laden post.

      I believe Maddy's post speaks for itself, as does yours.

      November 8, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  12. hey

    "I live in the 21st Century so I don't believe in witches, demons, devils" ai (atheist idiot)

    something u want to tell us? i, 2, live now and demons r donkey punching 24/7

    November 7, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
    • Akira

      I am happy that your fantasies are being fulfilled.

      November 8, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.