Town at Center of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Issues Policy That May Ban Atheist Invocations

Prayers Over Bible pdGREECE, N.Y. — The town at the center of this year’s Supreme Court prayer ruling is now facing opposition again from atheists and other groups for its new invocation policy, which some state would ban atheists from participating.

As previously reported, earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayers presented primarily in the name of Jesus at public meetings are not problematic as long as they do not seek to proselytize.

The case had centered on invocations that are offered at town hall meetings in Greece, New York, just outside of Rochester, which are presented in Jesus’ name more often than not since the town is largely comprised of Christian and Catholic churches. The town had been sued by two residents, one Jewish and one atheist, who asserted that the prayers made them feel “marginalized.”

“To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote on behalf of the majority.

Following the ruling, Dan Courtney of the Atheist Community of Rochester asked that he be allowed to present an invocation at an upcoming meeting, and was granted his request.

“We, as citizens, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega of our destiny are not, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant warned, mere means to the ends of another, but we are ends in ourselves,” Courtney said during his invocation.

But this past week, the town council in Greece unanimously voted to adopt a new policy that would require the clerk to compile a list of leaders of various faiths that would be candidates for invocation invitations.

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“The Assemblies List shall be compiled by using reasonable efforts, including research on the Internet, to identify all ‘churches,’ ‘synagogues,’ ‘congregations,’ ‘temples,’ ‘mosques’ or other religious assemblies in the Town of Greece,” the policy states. “All religious assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece are eligible to be included in the Assemblies List, and any such religious assembly can confirm its inclusion by specific written request to the clerk.”

Because the new policy says nothing of atheists and only cites religious groups, some are expressing opposition, including the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a secular institution headquartered in Amherst, New York.

“If this policy does, in effect, bar the nonreligious from delivering invocations, it would represent a disappointing step backward for the Town of Greece,” said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI.

The organization stated that it “will monitor the implementation of the Town of Greece’s policy in conjunction with local residents, in an effort to ensure that the Town of Greece does what it has promised to do: provide a non-discriminatory invocation policy, open for all residents of the town, rather than an opportunity for religious groups to proselytize.”

The town has not yet offered a statement as to whether or not the new policy will indeed exclude atheists.

“I can’t say one way or another,” Brian Marianetti, attorney for the town of Greece, told Religion News Service on Friday, adding that any candidate will be “decided on a case-by-case basis.”

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