Federal Court: Opening Prayers at Town Hall Meetings Must Encompass All Religions

A federal court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to open town hall meetings with prayers solely in the name of Jesus.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals released a decision last Thursday, declaring that over the past 11 years, the opening prayers of town hall meetings in Greece, New York have violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court stated that the prayers endorse one religion over another, as invocations are only performed by Christians.

Two Greece residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, supported by the atheist group “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” filed the lawsuit.

Officials in the town of Greece, a suburb of Rochester, have been opening every monthly meeting with prayers in the name of Jesus since 1999, with the exception of one year. The prayers were stopped in 2007 by Galloway and Stephens, who complained about the practice. In 2008, four of twelve meetings were opened by those of other religions, including a Jews, Wiccans and those of the Baha’i faith.

In 2010, as a result of legal action from the women, a federal district court ruled in favor of the town, stating that the exclusion of other faiths was not deliberate as the vast majority of churches in Greece, a town of just under 100,000 people, were Christian. Galloway and Stephens had also testified that they were not aware of any non-Christian congregations in the community.

On Thursday, the decision was reversed by the federal appeals court. The three-judge panel ruled that the town seemed to purposefully select Christians for its prayers when it could have included other religions. Therefore, the judges stated that the actions of city officials violated the Establishment Clause, which purportedly prevents the government from promoting a certain sect of religion.

“The town’s desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that for more than two hundred years. But when one creed dominates others — regardless of a town’s intentions — constitutional concerns come to the fore,” wrote Judge Guido Calabresi, who delivered the opinion on behalf of the panel.

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Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, was satisfied with the ruling. “Government meetings should welcome everyone, when one faith is preferred over others, that clearly leaves some people out,” he stated.

Ayesha Khan, who represented the women on behalf of Americans United, stated that “municipalities need to ensure that no single religion is advanced in their prayers, and that they have to take a fairly active role in ensuring constitutional compliance.”

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) represented the Town of Greece in the case. Attorney Joel Oster of ADF stated the ruling goes against Supreme Court precedent, and that it forces towns to have to jump through a lot of hoops just to have someone pray at town meetings.

“The town has no obligation to go outside of its borders as if it’s an affirmative action program,” he stated.

Oster further lamented that Greece would essentially be turned into a “prayer monitor,” in that officials would have to determine when Jesus’ name was being used too much.

“Since this nation’s founding, public meetings have been opened with prayers offered according to the conscience of the speaker,” he noted. “There is no legal reason why a town cannot engage in this practice today with people from within its own community. The district court rightly affirmed the constitutionality of the town’s policy,” Oster argued.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal regarding a Fourth Circuit ruling that ended the prayers at board meetings in Forsyth County, North Carolina. The county was sued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union after local residents complained about hearing the name of Jesus.

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