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)
  1. edwardjs007

    Actually, the important Question is whether they're passing any laws concerning/favoring a religion, a group of religious people or enacting religious laws or laws with some sort of religious slant. Arguing about who gets to say the prayer is just prostelizing and a religious fight for themselves, exactly what they're complaining about...

    November 2, 2013 at 1:38 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      no, both are important, as one leads to the other. you think special laws won't be passed for the religion everyone is forced to pray to? no one should get to say the prayer because prayer doesn't belong in a gov't building. pray at home, in a church or a park. but pray before you get to work.

      November 2, 2013 at 3:24 am |
  2. Kenman

    Ah the attack on Christianity continues, and it only takes TWO disgruntled people to change centuries of precedent that does them no harm, if they don't believe anyone is hearing the prayers!

    Perhaps they should consider the fact that they, out of 94,000 neighbors, have a problem with something the others mostly don't?

    November 2, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • HotAirAce

      I'm sure there were plenty of white slave owners who thought slavery didn't hurt blacks. In fact, I bet there were some who thought that master/slave was the natural and beneficial relationship.

      November 2, 2013 at 1:13 am |
      • lol??

        It's what a republic is all about and not the mob, top down, leadership needed, demobocracy from Sodom.

        November 2, 2013 at 1:17 am |
      • CoolCMo

        The proponents of slavery, in fact, used an argument of "biblical sanction" to justify slavery.

        November 2, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • lol??

      Keynes had a brother that loved the Bible and not men. Guess what the wurld preferred??

      November 2, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Reston Jeff

      Sure, because tradition trumps the Constitution.

      November 2, 2013 at 1:25 am |
    • Sean Lynch

      It's not an "attack on Christianity", the religion of the over sensitive majority. This case is upholding the First Amendment rights of citizens who don't believe that religious expression has any valid role in conducting government business.
      If you don't like the First Amendment have your representative push forward an amendment that abolishes the first and establishes your brand of Christianity as the official religion.

      November 2, 2013 at 1:57 am |
  3. shawbrooke

    I'm all for separation of belief system and state. But that's not what these women want. The complainants want the government adopt their personal secular humanist beliefs. That's not separation of belief and state, it's asking the state to adopt a their own beliefs as the state belief system. The government and the courts should not allow the secular humanists to become the new state belief system. If tradition and general consensus not enough, then ask people of various beliefs to provide a prayer or whatever. Absence of prayer/invocation is the secular humanist way, and they should not push everyone else out.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • Observer


      Do you have any problem if atheists be given equal time during such government procedings to give statements proclaiming that "God is Dead", etc?

      November 2, 2013 at 1:00 am |
    • lol??

      The only difference between the soviet states of russia and the soviet states in america was credit rating.

      November 2, 2013 at 1:11 am |
      • Reston Jeff

        Which the GOTP nearly trashed. Again. Got a point? Admire Mother Russia? Move there. Enjoy.

        November 2, 2013 at 1:31 am |
  4. lol??

    What would the bimbos at SCOTUS know about prayer?? Americult's prayers work like this:

    1)Send all yer moolah to washington to be washed and laundered.
    2) Pray to get some back.
    3) Notice the greenbacks received later from the Pale horse have shrunk in size and value and number. Some sock notes are completely unpaired. Those three dollar bills are also perceived as an oddity.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:23 am |
    • Reston Jeff

      Yeah, that Scalia is the biggest bimbo of them all. Move to freaking Iran if you want a theocracy. That pale horse Bush destroyed the economy but he talked to God personally, don't ya know.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:41 am |
      • lol??

        Not nice to steal the states' representation when ya passed the 17th. That was even more disastrous than prohibition.

        November 2, 2013 at 12:52 am |
        • Reston Jeff

          Why am I not surprised that you want to take us back to 1913?

          November 2, 2013 at 1:10 am |
        • lol??

          In 1914 coffee was 30 cents a pound.

          November 2, 2013 at 2:32 am |
        • CoolCMo

          That 30 cents per pound adjusted for inflation is today equivalent to $6.86 per pound. The average cost of coffee per pound in the US as of September, 2013, was $5.09 per pound. What is your point, other than you don't understand math, economics, civics, history or pretty much anything else? Here's a little life lesson for you: If Fox News provides a statistic for you to pollyparrot, it is false; if Glenn Beck tells you something, it is a lie.

          November 2, 2013 at 9:44 am |
      • lol??

        BTW jeff, Bushwhacko I was the white horse and Bushwhacko II was the black horse in the cycle.

        November 2, 2013 at 12:58 am |
        • Reston Jeff

          Why would you be so arrogant as to believe it is the United States that Revelation is referencing with its 4 Horseman allegory? Big world out there, toots.

          November 2, 2013 at 1:21 am |
        • lol??

          In the big wurld jeff,
          white horse......limeys
          red horse.........ruskies
          black horse......Nazis
          pale hose.........americult OR

          Diverse Beast, yay!! melting pot of unity thru diversity!!

          November 2, 2013 at 2:40 am |
      • lol??

        The spin cycle always follows the washing of tons of money cycle.

        November 2, 2013 at 1:02 am |
    • bananas

      U r funny.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • shawbrooke

      Okay, you don't like taxes. Think this over, though. Surely you are not proposing that the anti tax Republicans have suddenly changed their minds? Your comments are confusing.

      November 2, 2013 at 1:00 am |
  5. Robert Constant

    Forty Percent of Americans believe that the Earth was created six thousand years ago by a Jewish Tribal God. The believe the process took six days. The Earth created was flat. It was created before the sun or the stars. This is from the Book of Genesis.
    An agreement of the various scientists of the world now place the Earth at about 13.8 Billion years old. Is is estimated that there are about 300 million suns in our Galaxy and about one trillion planets. Our Galaxy is one of an estimated 200 million to 300 million galaxies in the Universe.
    As you might have guessed most of the "flat earth" people are from the Republican Old Confederacy States. The are the core supporters for the Tea Party. Most of them are still racist, still fighting the Civil War which in their minds never ended.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:21 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      The earth is not nearly that old. The universe is somewhere around 13.7, depending on what method you use to date it; that number might be off by up to a billion! The earth is around 5.5 billion, I think? Our solar system probably required dust and gas from two supernovae, so you have to allow time for the lives of those hotter and larger stars. I think the solar system is 6.6 b? Not sure.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:32 am |
      • Gavin

        The universe is 13.8 billion years old plus or minus 200 million years. The age of our solar system is 4.6 billion years old. The age of our planet is 4.5 billion years old. Galaxies are estimated at about 1 TRILLION at this time and that number is on the VERY low side.

        There are known buildings and archeological sites with humans living there that predate "Adam and Eve" by 6,000 years. There are cave paintings that predate the Bible by 28,000 years. There are paintings on rocks in the SE US that date back to the time of "Adam and Eve" so HOW did people make it that far and cross over oceans in a few years time to paint them?
        How did these things survive the "flood" as well as pre-flood places like Stonehenge?

        In the face of archeology to look to the Bible and religion for truth is like reading Dr. Seuss and expecting Shakespeare. "Green eggs and ham" is not "what light from yonder window breaks." Excavations in Turkey at Gobekli Tepe are about 12,000 years old. That is 8,000 years before the first Bible story, including Genesis, was even POSSIBLY written down.

        The value of the Bible is as ancient literature and a partial view into the mind and culture of a group of nomads in the middle east. There are certainly some moral lessons as well but not universal truth OR marality. We certainly don't advocate killing children with stones if they are disobedient, do we? We don't advocate treating women as property, do we? Sure we still find murder is wrong. We still think cheating on a spouse is wrong. But now that we have good refrigeration isn't it ok to eat bacon?

        As humans we strive for truth as did those middle easterners. I hope that we have reached past their aspirations and have learned a few things. In the Bible it says, a ROUGH quote, "as a child I behaved as a child. But I have put away the things of a child." Time to put away religion as a childish belief, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and enter into the modern world of truth where people realize that it was evolution that "created" us, and not some non-existent God.

        November 2, 2013 at 1:21 am |
        • CoolCMo

          Very well put. Thank you. I would offer only one small clarification. While the "bible" of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism) does in part mention nomadic peoples and their – usually competing – belief systems, it does not originate with the religious traditions of nomads. It begins with the belief system of a bronze age, cattle sacrificing semitic cult engaged in semi-permanent agriculture and animal husbandry in the Mesopotamia around 2000 BCE.

          November 2, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Gavin

      You missed a few facts there buddy. Plants were created without light, the earth experienced 15 FEET of rain an hour for a month and a half, and from ONE set of genes the entire earths population sprang forth to produce everythin from pygmies to zulus, to blonde haired blue eyed Europeans in less than 5000 years YET there is no such thing as evolution. And how did those Kangaroo's hop from Mount Ararat to Australia without having any babies on the way?

      Religion and God isn't just a myth, its a REDICULOUS myth that is not worth debating in the face of science. If you tell me you are religious, as aneducated modern person, I am forced to discount the rest of your opinions based on an obvious flaw in your logic.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:55 am |
  6. Christians

    Let's pray for all atheists.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:13 am |
    • Atheists

      Cool beans. And we'll think for all of you.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • Another Christian

      May God save their lost souls.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:17 am |
      • ATheist


        November 2, 2013 at 12:18 am |
      • Silly you

        Why worry about it. It wasn't that good of a movie, but I have mine in a water-resistant case, so it should be good rain or shine.

        November 2, 2013 at 12:20 am |
      • Silly you

        Well I say it wasn't good, but Winona was easy on the eyes.

        November 2, 2013 at 12:21 am |
      • Gavin

        And may MODERN medicine save your life. God can't as God does not exist. As a Doctor I can ASSURE you that humans save lives all the time. They also kill people all the time. But God? In 19 years working at hospitals I have never seen one of those miracles. Sometimes people beat the odds for a while, but there are NO miracles that cannot be explained by medicine and chance.

        November 2, 2013 at 1:25 am |
    • All-in God

      Yes, though they are both spiritually and intelectually mislead and misguided, they're still our brethren.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:24 am |
      • bananas

        U r funny dodo

        November 2, 2013 at 12:55 am |
      • G to the T

        You should re-read your bible. Paul was very specific about who a christians "brothers" are (hint – it ain't the rest of us).

        November 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
        • drturi

          Please Google "Halloween Suicide Girls Born Witches Dr. Turi" and have a blast! Pass it on if you like it! Check also – Google "Anarchy Coming To America? dr.turi"

          November 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
    • Observer


      Why not spend your time praying for all your fellow Christian HYPOCRITES who pick and choose from the Bible and IGNORE what they don't like? There's FAR FAR MORE of them.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:28 am |
      • Christians

        Who gave you the idea that I didn't? It's your presumtuous observation, isn't it?

        November 2, 2013 at 12:35 am |
        • Observer


          Why not clear up your own "house" first to set an example?

          November 2, 2013 at 12:39 am |
        • Christians


          Oh, is somebody here wanted to clean anybody's house? Sorry, it wasn't me!

          November 2, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • pATHologEIStS

      I think its a hopeless case for atheists.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:31 am |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Is it "hopeless case" or "pearls before swine" or some other meaninglessly v.a.gue cliché? I always forget.

        November 2, 2013 at 12:34 am |
        • Cpt. (not so) Obvious

          You seem so bothered Cpt, why?

          November 2, 2013 at 12:38 am |
      • Webby


        That supposed to be "pathologists"? Do you know what a pathologist is?

        November 2, 2013 at 12:39 am |
        • pATHologEISTS


          Yep! How about you, are spiderman?

          November 2, 2013 at 12:45 am |
        • pATHologEISts

          *are you spiderman* rather.

          November 2, 2013 at 12:52 am |
    • HotAirAce

      How about all christians get help from a mental health professional and otherwise fuck off?

      November 2, 2013 at 12:42 am |
      • ColdQueenHearts

        Relax honey, what made so angry? All they want is to be kind to you, can't you see?

        November 2, 2013 at 12:50 am |
        • HotAirAce

          No anger here. Just offering sound advice.

          November 2, 2013 at 12:59 am |
        • Gavin

          Christians want to be kind? WOW. Tell that to the vitims of the Spanish Inquisition! Tell that to Galileo and all the scientists Christians persecuted and demonized holding back progress throughout history. Tell that to kids you want to teach the Bible to instead of evolution! Tell that to all the HIV positive Africans that "Christians" refuse to give condoms to as God said 2000 years ago that sperm is sacred. You Christians are a backwards group of haters that preach love and understanding while you keep hate a predjudice in your hearts.

          November 2, 2013 at 1:30 am |
        • ColdQueenHearts

          FYI, Gavin

          I was referring only to "Christians" the original poster and other commenters whom I believed to be Christians.

          I guess it's time for you to move on from the horrors of the past and embrace the glorious present, darling.

          November 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
  7. observer

    "Though it says nothing about Jews, its analysis mirrors classic anti-Semitic canards. Immediately after footage of the twin towers falling, for example... (it) features an excerpt from a speech that Charles Lindbergh gave to an America First group in 1941: “When hostilities commenced in Europe in 1939, it was realized that the American people had no intention of entering the war. But it was realized that this country could be enticed into the war, in very much the same way that it was enticed into the last one.” As his words play, headlines about Iraq float across the screen. “We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction,” he concluded. Lindbergh, of course, was talking about the Jews."

    the athies agenda

    November 2, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • Reston Jeff

      Charles Lindbergh foresaw 9/11 and the war in Iraq? What the hell are you talking about?
      You mirror the sociopathic tendencies of someone with a advanced case of borderline personality disorder.

      Whatever your agenda is, your insanity is all that comes through.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:17 am |
      • It's also

        unable to come up with its own alias, so it just uses the alias of others; quite the cowardly troll

        November 2, 2013 at 12:37 am |
  8. Reality # 2

    Only for the newbies:

    of Free Will and Future are inherent to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, it is not possible to alter life with prayers or creeds. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variability/randomness of Nature..

    So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and stop worshiping/revering cows or bowing to Mecca five times a day. Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the proper rules of living as gracious and good human beings.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  9. atheists stop the fuss

    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.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:00 am |
  10. bananas

    Okay. Now she will delete them all. Bet!

    November 1, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Reston Jeff

      You're insane, aren't you?

      November 1, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      time for your meds.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
  11. bananas

    I am AWESOME!!!!!

    November 1, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Reston Jeff

      You are nuts.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  12. bananas

    U need no one to show u morality.

    November 1, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Reston Jeff

      You need someone to show you back to your padded cell.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
  13. bananas

    But u don't prescreen. Lying filth.

    November 1, 2013 at 11:29 pm |

    • There is no condom, nation, so you'd best love the lord.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
      • bananas

        Amen nothing.

        November 1, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
  14. bananas

    I am GOOD!

    November 1, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • Reston Jeff

      You are MENTALLY ILL!

      November 1, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
  15. bananas

    U c, they cannot force u to reveal your beliefs about atheism and Hinduism and otjhet religions while they forcefully occupy a government room!

    When tom? The date.

    November 1, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  16. bananas

    Tom, they have blocked my last 7 attempts to ask you for the date this took place. They cannot discriminate

    November 1, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Some time after 1962, I'm sure of it.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
      • bananas

        Thanks pal. I love destroying u. U r so stupid, dodo

        November 1, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  17. Fun with quotes

    Tom, when did this happen? The date?

    November 1, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Tom

      July 29th, 1969.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  18. Dan

    If you want to continue a war over apples and oranges; start another one about bananas.

    November 1, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I am not in favor of war.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm |


        November 1, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  19. bananas

    Tom, Tom, the Other One
    Most recently? At a school board meeting I did indeed have to stand around during the pledge to your flag, jarhead333, the pledge to the state flag, and a prayer. I stood there with other non-theists, hindus and people of other religions while the core group, the people who mattered, it seems, went through their rituals and knew us as the outsiders.

    tommy, i find that very frightening. they had no right tommy! to force u and others to state your positions on god, no gods, and other religions while they took control of the room and the agenda, even taking your chairs away. i am a right wing bigoted republican and a white supremicist to boot plus a red neck and tammy faye bakker fan, but i refuse to let my dearest friends take your chair.

    give me there address. i am going to tell them to let u sit down. where did this take place, observer?

    November 1, 2013 at 11:01 pm |

    • They were kind. They let us keep our chairs.

      November 1, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  20. Scholar

    Skip the prayers and get to the business.

    November 1, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
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About this blog

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.