Greece Is the World: Supreme Court Accepts AU Case Challenging a New York Town's Sectarian Prayer Promotion-And Church-State Law Hangs in the Balance
Brown, Simon, Church & State
The morning of May 20 was a hectic one for Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens.
The two upstate New York women are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to take, and they had been waiting since April to see what the court would do. At 9:30 a.m. that day, Stephens and Galloway checked for an update on SCOTUSblog, an Internet site that details all things Supreme Court.
A quick glance and they had their answer: the justices announced that they had accepted the case.
"I was amazed," Stephens told Church & State. "What goes on at the U.S. Supreme Court seems pretty far removed from my life in upstate New York."
Later this year, the highest court in the United States will hear oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case that Americans United brought on behalf of the two residents who objected to the Greece Town Board's practice of inviting Christian clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.
Even though a federal appeals court sided against the Rochester suburb's board, the Supreme Court chose to review its first legislative prayer case in a generation thanks in part to the Religious Right's extraordinary campaign for intervention.
The last time the Supreme Court took on legislative prayer was 30 years ago in Marsh v. Chambers. In that case, Nebraska state legislator Ernest Chambers challenged the legislature's chaplaincy policy, claiming it was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
But in a 6-3 decision, the court said the chaplain's position and activities, including leading pre-meeting prayers, did not violate the Constitution--mostly on the basis of historic tradition.
Ayesha N. Khan, Americans United legal director, said the Greece case could have as significant an impact as Marsh.
"Marsh established that official prayer is allowed, but left some questions unanswered," she told Church & State. "It did not, for example, indicate whether or how it applies to meetings of city and county councils, which operate very differently than state legislatures."
AU's plaintiffs said they are well aware of why their case matters.
"I believe that the separation of church and state is for the good of all religions," Galloway, a passionate advocate for peace, justice and equality, told Church & State. "I think that it protects religions from government and government from religions."
Stephens, a retired librarian, expressed a similar sentiment.
"I'm glad that I had the gumption to get involved in the case, because I know the importance of church-state separation," she said.
This all started many years ago. Galloway, who is Jewish, began attending town board meetings frequently in 2005; Stephens, an atheist, started attending the sessions regularly in 2001.
Until 1999, the Greece Board opened its meetings with a moment of silence. But that year, after 18 months in office, Town Supervisor John Auberger, a member of St. Lawrence Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, changed the policy so that meetings would open with a prayer given by the "chaplain of the month."
The invocation was offered by designated individuals from 1999 until Americans United complained, and all the prayers in that period were said by Christian clergy with most invocations being overtly Christian in nature. In 2008, following the complaint, there was a four-meeting hiatus from the usual prayer practice, but the board quickly returned to an all-Christian routine after that.
Galloway and Stephens decided in 2007 to take their complaint straight to Auberger, but he never met with them. Other officials essentially said the only options were to not listen to the prayers or stop attending meetings.
Unsatisfied with those choices, Stephens and Galloway sought help from Americans United.
AU attorneys tried to settle the matter outside court, in July 2007 sending a letter urging the town board to stop the prayers completely or choose invocations that are nonsectarian. …