For Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, patience pays.
In May, after a five-year legal fight, Galloway and Stephens finally got what they wanted: a federal court decision against sectarian prayers before board meetings in the Town of Greece, N.Y.
"It's been hard waiting for these decisions," Galloway told Church & State. "It's a long process. It's tiring."
It was also worth it. In a May 17 decision, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals explained that the town's procedures "virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint" because nearly all of the prayers were delivered by Christian clergy. The town violated the First Amendment, the unanimous three-judge panel said, by presenting a "steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers."
That "steady drumbeat" is a departure from the past for the Town of Greece. In the 1980s, monthly meetings opened with nothing more than a moment of silence, Stephens told Church & State. But for more than a decade, the town, which is eight miles outside Rochester and has a population approaching 100,000, seems to have created an environment that is hostile to those who don't support Christianity, as Stephens and Galloway would discover.
Galloway, who is Jewish, began attending town board meetings frequently in 2005 because she wanted to discuss an issue related to local cable-access television. Stephens, an atheist, started attending the sessions regularly in 2001 because she disapproved of some land development plans.
Galloway said she was struck "right away" by her local government's prayer practice, in which clergy opened the meetings with an act of worship. The board did not require that the invocations be inclusive or non-sectarian, and official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded prayers contained references to "Jesus …