Greece v. Galloway – A Year on the Front Lines

On the evening of May 5, 2014, I was sitting with Linda Stephens, one of the two plaintiffs in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case, as we waited for the start of a board meeting for the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. We were discussing the troubling ruling that had just come down that day and how the Supreme Court’s ruling in the town’s favor to allow prayer before legislative meetings opened the way for explicitly secular invocations. Linda was philosophical about the legal defeat, and she seemed relatively unfazed for having dedicated so much time and energy to the process. The one bright spot, we agreed, was that the Court affirmed the requirement that the opportunity to provide an invocation, such as those delivered before the Greece town board, needed to be open to everyone—including atheists.

It suddenly occurred to me that we had no time to waste in testing this premise, so I immediately contacted the Town of Greece and requested the next available opening to deliver an invocation. The town responded in short order, and my invocation was scheduled to open the July 2014 town board meeting. As I prepared my remarks, the secular community began to rally behind the historic opportunity, and by the time my invocation was delivered we had gathered a who’s who of secular leaders from across the country in attendance to support the rights of nonbelievers.

To be sure, the ability to participate in the invocation process was modest consolation for having to endure yet another hole knocked in the wall of separation between church and state. It was a hole, we reasoned, but at least nonbelievers could pass through it as well.

In the Town of Greece, however, as soon as the reporters left the town hall and filed their stories, the hole in the wall of separation became a door—one that opened only for the religious.

Just a month after my invocation, the Town of Greece adopted an invocation policy written by the religious right group, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF also provided the legal muscle to Greece in its Supreme Court victory. Despite the repeated assertions by the Town of Greece in its brief to the Court, and its subsequent oral argument that “any Town resident of any faith or no faith may offer the invocation,” the new policy explicitly limits the invocation process to organizations that “regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.” The door had shut, and any sense of relief that nonbelievers were on the inside quickly vanished.

What made this move by Greece so astonishing was not only that the Town had asserted before the Court that the process was open to everyone, but that this argument was the central pillar of their case. Indeed, their brief to the Supreme Court cites this “fact” of “total inclusion” no fewer than twenty-one times, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, found it so compelling that he referred to it twice in his recitation of the facts supporting the decision.

However, as if to provide some hope that the door was not permanently bolted shut, Greece’s new policy does offer a means for some minority groups to be included in the process, albeit with extra hurdles. Groups can petition for inclusion on a list of “religious assemblies,” and the Town may approve or decline the petition at their discretion.

Fortunately the secular community in and around Greece, New York, is well-organized, and the leader of the Atheist Community of Rochester, Paul Grimm, successfully cleared the invocation hurdles and was able to deliver an invocation to the Greece town board just a few weeks ago. Also on the schedule is the Rochester Sunday Assembly, a nontheistic organization affiliated with the UK-based Sunday Assembly.

But despite these successes, the extra barriers and arbitrary nature of the approval process is still very  worrisome. Persons living in communities without a strong secular organization would have no representation in the process, and governing boards that adopt this policy and that are not disposed to allowing such inclusion could simply deny the petition.

What we’ve learned in the year since the Court’s tragic ruling is that there are those on the religious right that, for all the rhetoric about inclusion and equality, have no desire for inclusion and equality. We’ve learned that for some, the bearing of false witness, even to our highest court, is no deterrent to achieving their objectives.  And we’ve learned that there is a well-organized and well-funded effort in this country that expects nothing short of a Christian theocracy. With a Supreme Court on their side, achieving that goal must seem tantalizingly close.