May 17, 2012
Christian-Dominated Town Prayer Violates Establishment Clause
The Second Circuit, in its opinion today in Galloway v. Town of Greece, found that the town meetings practice of legislative prayer since 1999 "impermissibly affiliated the town with a single creed, Christianity."
The evidence, as the unanimous panel described it, was that of the 130 different invocations between 1999 and June 2010, two-thirds contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son,” or the “Holy Spirit.”
The other third were theistic, but more "generic," including ones by Christians, Jewish, and Baha'i prayer givers, all of whom referenced God. There was also a Wiccan prayer, in which the Wiccan priestess invoked Athena and Apollo, apropos of the Town’s name.
But it was not only the content of the prayers. As the court stated, in concluding that "the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint," because "an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town’s prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity," the conclusion is supported by "several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials." The court emphasizes that it did "not not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case."
The panel emphasized what would be constitutional: "a practice such as the one to which the town here apparently aspired" meaning one that is "inclusive of multiple beliefs and makes clear, in public word and gesture, that the prayers offered are presented by a randomly chosen group of volunteers, who do not express an official town religion, and do not purport to speak on behalf of all the town’s residents or to compel their assent to a particular belief." (emphasis added).
In short, one invocation to Athena out of 130 is simply not sufficient, and not only in Greece.
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