Court Declares NY Town's Prayer Practice Unconstitutional

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By Michael Gryboski, Christian Post Reporter
May 18, 2012|3:18 pm

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a New York State town government's practice of opening nearly every meeting with a Christian prayer over the past 11 years is unconstitutional.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Greece, N.Y.'s practice of opening town meetings with prayers that were largely Christian violated church and state separation, reversing a lower court's decision.

Greece, N.Y., Supervisor John Auberger told The Christian Post that he was "disappointed in the vourt's ruling" and that the town was "reviewing all or our legal options."

Joel Oster, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, who represented Greece in Court, told CP that the court's decision contradicts past Supreme Court rulings on the matter.

"The U.S. Supreme Court already upheld the practice of prayers before deliberative bodies," said Oster, who noted that the town will likely appeal the decision. "This opinion by the Second Circuit effectively undermines the Supreme Court's opinion and places several roadblocks and obstacles for a town to permit legislative prayers."

The case was brought to court in 2010 by two residents of the town who were represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United, told CP that the prayers were unconstitutional due to their content.

"An overwhelming majority of the prayers were explicitly Christian, which advanced a single faith to the exclusion of all other religions," said Khan.

Greece had no formal policy for prayers, but rather an employee of the town would go through the phonebook and find religious institutions to invite to meetings to give an opening prayer. This practice had been going on for 14 years.

Before suing the town, in 2008 the plaintiffs brought their complaint before the town leaders, who proceeded to have four of their next 12 meetings' opening prayers delivered by non-Christian clergy.

Initially, a lower court had ruled in favor of Greece, stating that because the community was largely Christian it made sense that a considerably higher number of prayers offered at town meetings would be Christian in nature.

"The fact that a community is religiously homogenous provides more, not less, reason for the town to ensure that its prayers do not align the town with any particular faith," said Khan. "In such communities, members of minority religions are already marginalized; the government's alliance with the majority religion simply compounds that marginalization."

ADF counsel Oster, however, told CP that the issue of prayers being seen as unwelcoming to certain religious groups was an argument "made to the U.S. Supreme Court and rejected."

"The prayers offered at town board meetings were virtually identical in nature to the prayers considered by the U.S. Supreme Court and upheld in Marsh v. Chambers," said Oster.

 

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