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. Inez

    The irony of this situation that when the co-Plaintiffs step into the Supreme Court, they are to swear on a Bible to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. And also that the Supreme Court Marshal has to say the traditional statement that ends with, "God save the United States and this honorable court."

    November 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Unless you can provide definitive evidence that The Babble or some god is part of a witness' affirmation to tell the truth, you are a liar.

      November 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
      • Opposing View

        Hot Air... The only liar on this forum is you, Hot Air Ace - correction - the BIGGEST liar on this forum is you. Plenty of your pals are liars too. And that's all you guys do is tell lies – and you're pathological, at that. And that's quite funny. For you to accuse someone else of lying, when you're a liar yourself. That means you're a "hypocrite" as well. Go figure...

        Why do atheists always tell lies? Answer: Because if they told the truth they'd have no argument...

        November 7, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          So, you cannot quote the relevant law that requires everyone to acknowledge some god. What a surprise. . .

          November 8, 2013 at 9:21 am |
        • Dan Foster

          The religious are liars, by definition. They are good at it. The only way the self delusion can be sustained is to continue to lie to themselves, and everyone else. The christian "reality" is based on nothing but lies. You have no facts to support it, so everything you say in support of it is a proven lie.

          November 8, 2013 at 10:14 am |
        • Opposing View

          Dan Foster… I think you're a bit confused and is talking about yourself. It's either that, or you really are dumb. To make a statement that no proof exists in the face of Jesus Christ, has got to be the most dumbest statement in all the universe. But then again, atheists have never been known for being too bright…

          November 8, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          OV, you are incapable of backing up simple things like a claim that everybody must swear on The Babble before testifying in a court of law. You have never, not ever, produced a bit of actual evidence for any supernatural claim. We have no reason to believe any of your unsupported claims. Again, you are mentally ill or a liar – I'm going wit a lot of both. Seek help.

          November 9, 2013 at 2:06 am |
        • tallulah13

          If you have proof of lies, Opposing View, please post it. If not, you are actually the liar.

          November 9, 2013 at 2:10 am |
    • Dan

      Well, not exactly. The Plaintiffs won't be testifying, they're only spectators at this point. But the Marshal will make a reference to God to open the proceedings.

      I'm an atheist that lives near Greece, NY (in fact I know the plaintiffs). When I needed to testify in court about two years ago I objected to the "so help me God" language when swearing me in. To her credit, the Judge excused me from having to repeat that phrase and went out of her way to let me know that there would be no discrimination based on my lack of belief. If only the Town of Greece would have been as accommodating to their non-Christian residents this would have never come to court.

      November 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
      • dan

        u r a liar

        November 7, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
        • merlynleroy

          No little dan, big Dan is telling the truth. Courts in the US MUST allow for affirmations without 'so help me god'; it's been that way throughout the entire history of the US, as it was spelled out in the very first piece of legislation ever passed by congress, the Judiciary Act of 1789.

          November 8, 2013 at 9:07 am |
        • dan

          No kidding.
          That's not what he said.

          November 9, 2013 at 8:53 am |
  2. Richard Cranium

    how does it feel to be busted dm? lol! horse's rear end.

    November 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • U R


      November 7, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  3. Richard Cranium

    3 billion bucks teddy

    i'm guessing u seriously get it

    November 7, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • JR-

      You truly make me laugh. You know what's going to happen? Absolutely nothing you, you felon.

      November 7, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  4. Richard Cranium

    I'm guessing you live in the U.S. or another christian dominated country and have no idea what it's like to be a religious minority?

    , i'm guessing u smoke 3 packs a day

    November 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Gotcha

      I'm guessing you smoke meth, name stealer.

      November 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Observer

      I'm guessing you r dodo!

      November 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • blessed are the cheeseburgers

        I am unreal. I really am

        November 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
        • burst forth in joy

          honestly now. no bs. seriously, i don't believe i am THAT great, but what's my opinion against billions of others?

          November 7, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
      • Maddy

        I'm guessing you have an IQ of 12.

        November 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
      • Observer

        fake Observer / faith / hharri

        Your days on here are very limited, lying "Christian".


        November 7, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
        • sam stone

          observer, ignore the troll. don't waste your time.

          u do plan on visiting me in prison, clearly?

          November 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  5. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    The Plank space telescope has reached the end of its mission. The telescope had mapped the 'oldest light' in the universe. The telescope was placed far from earth, at about 1.6 million kilometers away to conduct its studies. But now the scope has been shut down and is drifting off into space.

    Plank surveyed the Cosmic Microwave Background, the first light in the universe after the Big Bang when the universe cooled enough to form hydrogen atoms. Scientists say that before that time matter and radiation would have been so hot that the universe would have been opaque.

    Data gathered from Plank will be studied for years and may unlock many mysteries of the Big Bang itself. The first moments of the universe may be imprinted in that Cosmic Microwave Background. We may be able to probe the universe less than a billionth of a second after it began.

    Theory says that matter and light decoupled about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Matter formed stars and galaxies while the light spread out and cooled forming the Cosmic Microwave Background.

    Plank determined that the universe is made of 4.9% normal matter (the atoms from which we are made), 26.8% dark matter (the invisible material holding the galaxies together) and 68.3% dark energy (the mysterious component accelerating cosmic expansion). Plank also determined the rate of universe expansion which suggests that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.


    November 7, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      with a nice telescope on a planet just 2,000 light years away, his life is fully observable

      November 7, 2013 at 7:03 am |
      • saint john XII

        Awesome! As light reaches said planet in two thousand years, a powerful telescope could focus on Christ's life. Those watching thru it could follow him as he grows up and performs miracles. How cool.

        In reality, his life is on display throughout the universe always. Anyone with the proper magnifying device who is far enough away can peer into our world. it is current events for them.

        November 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
        • hotgasbeans

          saint john XII, do u expect other civilizations are watching the events of 2,000 years ago around the universe? even now light from those days shoots across space at c. mind boggling

          what if we could intercept those particular photons and redirect them here? iow, waves of light containing that information, those exact images, race at 186,200 mph throughout the universe in every direction, available for viewing if we could find a way to bounce/reflect/bend/slow down/redirect those waves into our field of vision or video equipment.

          somewhere the crucifixion is happening live, in real time, depending where u r.

          November 7, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  6. Reality # 2


    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)(As do the nine members of the SCOTUS)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    November 7, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • Opposing View

      The Atheist Rule #3: When all else fails, mock or speak evil of that which you don't understand….

      November 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
      • corridorwatcher

        Opposing View

        Could we have all of the rules in one place, Please?

        November 8, 2013 at 2:26 am |
      • tallulah13

        Funny. It sounds like you are mocking and speaking evil of something you don't understand, Opposing View. So are you an atheist or are you just another christian hypocrite?

        November 8, 2013 at 2:30 am |
      • In Santa we trust

        So explain why it's not a delusion – there is no evidence for a god; all evidence that we have points away from the personal gods of religions.

        November 8, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  7. Unknown

    I love how all of these turn into a rage fest. Both side could never prove their point of whether a supreme being exists or not. Best we can do is wait to die and see what's in store for us. You all do give me an amusing read, though. Continue your never-ending arguments!

    November 6, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      These do not all turn into "rage fests." (By "these," I assume you mean conversations between believers and nonbelievers about the existence of god). And there is a logically superior position; that's why the topic is debated so hotly. One side is logically superior but the other side has more emotional investment.

      November 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
      • I disagree

        No there really is not a superior position on this topic as you will never correctly be able to support a negative. There is always a solipsist argument or an argument to another dimension/universe/gap. A definitive answer either way is where philosophy goes to die.

        November 7, 2013 at 2:44 am |
        • Sara

          You can't arge that lack of god is a superior (better fit) position than any god, but you can argue that it is better than specific god conceptions that are either internally inconsistent or conflict with other data.

          November 7, 2013 at 6:42 am |
    • EnjaySea

      It's almost how you described it Unknown, but not exactly.

      As an atheist I don't argue that there is no god. I only argue that there is insufficient evidence that there is a god. There is nothing I need to prove because I don't proclaim anything as being the truth. I'm just waiting for evidence, and when it arrives, then I'll believe, and until it does, I don't believe.

      November 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
      • Opposing View

        EnjaySea… If you can't believe in Jesus Christ, then you shall receive the evidence you seek in hell…

        Jesus Christ said this: (John 8:24) "If you don't believe that I am He, then you shall die in your sins…"

        Meaning, if you don't believe he is the Christ and the son of the living God, then you can continue on to hell. Because no other proof shall you get...

        That same Jesus also said this: (Matthews 16:4) This generation seeketh for a sign. But there shall be none except the preaching of the gospel…

        November 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
  8. All jokes aside

    Prayer or no prayer...which option would give the government less power?

    November 6, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Your government will not be assuming powers it does not already have by taking either position. The question is about whether the position it does end up taking is actually consistent with its Contitution.

      November 6, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One


        November 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  9. tallulah13

    I don't care for their babble. There's nothing true in it. I don't like the way they to try to jam their lies down my hatch.

    And they's always witchin. Dag.

    November 6, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • Maddy

      Stop stealing names, faith. You're getting very tiring.

      November 6, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  10. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    You clearly do

    I'm guessing you

    That said

    having said that

    Ok...I guess what I'm not understanding is

    you do know that the Bible was written by men

    and is riddled with factual errors on virtually every page, don't you?

    r u seriously hoping not to be laughed at?


    point being

    atheists need jobs dm!!

    November 6, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • Baby Jesus


      November 6, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • The Virgin Mary

      Now you went and made him cry again!

      November 6, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
  11. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    You clearly do

    I'm guessing you

    That said

    having said that

    Ok...I guess what I'm not understanding is

    you do know that the Bible was written by men

    and is riddled with factual errors on virtually every page, don't you?

    r u seriously hoping not to be laughed at?


    point being

    atheists need jobs dm!

    November 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Nance

      You have got that ugly heart.

      November 6, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  12. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    You clearly do

    I'm guessing you

    That said

    having said that

    Ok...I guess what I'm not understanding is

    you do know that the Bible was written by men

    and is riddled with factual errors on virtually every page, don't you?

    r u seriously hoping not to be laughed at?


    point being

    atheists need jobs dm

    November 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      Imitation is a form of flattery you flirt.

      November 6, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  13. One one

    What are the legal arguments for allowing prayer ceremonies at government meetings?

    November 6, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that


      November 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Tim

      That was discussed.

      It's an open prayer. Anyone can join, or not. Any anyone can pray for their own faith. Or not. It's coincidence that 99% of the town happen to be Christian.

      Though I do agree that crap should not be involved in government. I think even the religious should be offended.

      November 6, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  14. sirhuxley

    Christians do this nonsense of trying to keep their weird Jewish Sheepherder nonsense religion relevant to 21st Century Americans.

    Well, I am not Jewish and I am not a Sheepherder.

    I live in the 21st Century so I don't believe in witches, demons, devils, and I don't believe in jesus or his brother Jose but they do fantastic landscaping and I recommend them both.

    The problem for Christianity is that is is an effective tool for dividing the American People (ie. GOP vs Dems).

    But people, especially young people realize that Christianity is now just an evil problem that we have to marginalize.

    We will too. Most "believers" perhaps 60% or more are over 62 years of age, most have little education, half of the males in that group will be dead within 10 years, 80% dead within 15 years.

    That means far less money for Churches to operate on, so that is why the Faith Based Initiative was passed during the Bush years, and we will soon repeal it.

    So the GOP has a problem, because the Culture Wars were their only inducement for these people to vote for them.

    So the GOP is doing everything possible to keep Jesus and Jose relevant, like this business here of trying to associate Christian faith with government power.

    Soon we will be able to get our Debt under control by cutting Military Spending, we will regulate the HELL out of Wall Street, we will legalize and tax cannabis, and big pharma will see it has alot less money for lobbying...

    The future without Jesus in our politics is bright indeed...

    November 6, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • lol??

      huxter sayz,

      ".........................Christianity is now just an evil problem that we have to marginalize..................."

      A little over the top there, big guy?? A little fervorositized fanaticism goes a long way for the mob.

      November 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
      • Maddy

        The mob mentality of Christians who insist on blurring the 1st Amendment? I agree.

        November 6, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
      • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

        lol?? is accusing someone of being "over the top" in their characterization...? Now THAT is funny...

        November 6, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • blue

      Do you really think that getting rid of Christians will solve our country's problems? The problems of our country are a result of greed, pride, and foolishness.

      November 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
      • Maddy

        I don't want to rid the country of Christians. I just want to rid the country of Christian influence in our secular government.

        November 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
        • letmeeatcake

          ...and simply let the righteous and true secular government operate independently and amorally...just like the blessed atheist trinity stalin, mao and pol pot intended in all their wisdom and power and might, forever more...amen...

          November 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
        • Maddy

          You do realize that the United States is the secular nation, correct? And that religion has no role in the government, correct? And where did I say I wanted the United States to become an atheist nation? I didn't.
          Stop with your silly hysterics. You look absurd.

          November 7, 2013 at 12:07 am |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          "you do know that the Bible was written by men" dodo
          i can't think of anything worse

          "You do realize that the United States is the secular nation, correct? And that religion has no role in the government, correct? And where did I say I wanted the United States to become an atheist nation? I didn't." dodo
          what a horse's rear

          "Stop with your silly hysterics. You look absurd." dodo
          u tell em love

          November 7, 2013 at 7:13 am |
        • Sara


          I think you are confused about the difference between a secular and atheist nation.

          November 7, 2013 at 7:14 am |
        • Gotcha

          You are just plain creepy, name stealer.

          November 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
        • Maddy

          Why are you still breathing my oxygen, name stealing git?

          November 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  15. Humble_hearted

    i am seriously suggesting that dodo ain't too bright

    lay lay lay
    lay across my big brass bed
    lay lady lay
    stay wit your man awhile
    until the break of day
    let me c u make m smile
    whatever colors u have in ur mind
    il show them to ya
    and ul c m shine

    I guess what I'm not understanding is,
    point being

    November 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Maddy

      Yeah, you're so bright that you posted it twice.

      November 6, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  16. Humble_hearted

    i am seriously suggesting that dodo ain't too bright

    lay lay lay
    lay across my big brass bed
    lay lady lay
    stay wit your man awhile
    until the break of day
    let me c u make m smile
    whatever colors u have in ur mind
    il show them to ya
    and ul c m shine

    November 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Maddy

      You are again stealing a Christian's name? The Gandhi quote was written especially for you. You truly have no shame.

      November 6, 2013 at 4:35 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.