Church-State Odyssey in Greece: After an Epic Five-Year Fight, Two New York Women Win a Court Battle over Sectarian Prayers at Their Town Board Meetings

Article excerpt

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 Christ," "Jesus," "Your Son" or the "Holy Spirit."

Between 2004 and 2008, an exceedingly small number of non-Christians were invited to deliver the opening invocation, court records said, while all prayers between January 2009 and June 2010 were given by Christian ministers.

"The prayers alienated me from the start," Stephens said. "First, because I am an atheist, but also because I thought it was just a ploy of the politicians in office to curry favor from the Christian pastors in town."

Galloway said the invocations were particularly galling for her because everyone in attendance was asked to stand for them, and she simply didn't want to. On one occasion, she decided not to stand, and it immediately made her stick out.

"It was a very crowded room, and all these eyes were looking at me," she said.

Galloway and Stephens knew each other through their local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and they began discussing their feelings about the situation when local press covered the issue.

Galloway, who served as the lead plaintiff in Galloway v. Town of Greece, said her past in particular motivated her to stand up for her beliefs.

Until age 12, she lived in the mostly Christian town of McHenry, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Other kids there would say "Ew!" when they saw her eating sandwiches made with matzo at Passover or would ostracize her when she complained about singing Christian songs for school choir programs.

"People don't realize how hard it is to be a minority faith," Galloway said.

So when the Greece policy rankled, Galloway and Stephens decided in 2007 to take their complaint straight to Town Supervisor John Auberger. Or so they thought. They ended up meeting with two other town officials who were unhelpful.

We were basically informed, said Galloway, "You can either not listen to the prayers or you can leave the meetings."

Unsatisfied with those options, Stephens and Galloway sought help from Americans United, which tried to settle the matter outside court. …