May 12, 2014

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today announced that it is implementing a coordinated response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision approving official prayers before meetings of local government bodies.

The plan, dubbed “Operation Inclusion,” is necessary to ensure that the rights of all Americans are protected and to respond to misleading claims by Religious Right groups, Americans United says.

“The Supreme Court’s misguided ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway threatens to subject millions of Americans to prayers imposed by the government at the behest of Religious Right zealots who believe that America is a ‘Christian nation,’” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Our plan is designed to educate legislators and citizens so they know what this decision really says.”

Operation Inclusion’s four components include:

- Fighting attempts by Religious Right groups that seek to compel local governments to include prayer. Nothing in the Greece ruling requires local government to include prayers before meetings. Many communities don’t sponsor prayers because they wish to respect diversity and uphold the separation of church and state. Religious Right organizations will likely attempt to pressure towns and counties to incorporate official prayer into their meetings. Americans United will combat this offensive.

AU will also explain to local officials that government-sponsored prayer is often divisive and remind them that, despite what courts may allow, the best policy remains to respect the views of all constituents and not impose religion on anyone.

- Educating local officials and members of the community about the parameters of the decision. The Greece decision, Americans United says, did not approve all types of prayers before legislative bodies. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said prayers that denigrate other faiths, threaten others with damnation or seek converts remain problematic.

In addition, Kennedy said that local officials may not direct prayers or compel people to take part and that prayers may not be integrated into the policy-making periods of government meetings. AU’s Legal Department has prepared materials analyzing the scope of the opinion and explaining what it does and does not allow. The document will be made available to communities nationwide.

- Mobilizing local activists to ensure the inclusion of all points of view. The court majority upheld the Greece policy because, in theory at least, prayers/statements could be delivered by representatives from a range of religious and philosophical points of view. Americans United intends to move from theory to practice by offering assistance to individuals who wish to seek time at the speaker’s podium to offer opening messages that are welcoming and inclusive.

- Investigating violations of the ruling. In cases where local governments appear to be violating the tenets of the decision, Americans United will engage in dialogue and, if necessary, litigation to make certain that the rights of non-Christians and others are not violated.

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AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said some local officials appear to be already misinterpreting the Greece decision. For example, in Roanoke County, Va., a supervisor announced his intention to allow only Christians to offer pre-meeting prayers. In Sussex County, Del., some officials are pressing to return to recitation of the Lord’s Prayer to open meetings.

Neither of these schemes, Khan said, is permissible under the Greece ruling.

“Some people are getting the idea that the Greece decision creates a Wild West of government-sponsored prayer,” Khan said. “That’s not the case. There are still rules, and we intend to make certain they are followed.”