May 17, 2012

When the Greece, N.Y., Town Board regularly opened its monthly meetings with Christian invocations, it favored one faith over others and violated the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court said today.

In a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Guido Calabresi said “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored the litigation, hailed the verdict as an important win for religious liberty.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, “We are very happy with the court’s decision. Government meetings should welcome everyone. When one faith is preferred over others, that clearly leaves some people out.”

The Greece Town Board has a longstanding practice of inviting clergy to open the board’s monthly meetings with prayers. The board does not require that the prayers be inclusive and non-sectarian.

As a result, over the past decade, the vast majority of the prayers have been Christian. Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations given before meetings contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son,” or the “Holy Spirit.”

Two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, objected to the governmental preference for one faith, and Americans United filed a lawsuit on their behalf in 2008.

In his Galloway v. Greece opinion, Calabresi wrote: “We conclude that an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town’s prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity.”

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who argued the case, was pleased with the outcome.

“This is a wonderful and well-reasoned decision,” she said. “I was particularly pleased that the ruling was unanimous, despite being issued by a panel of judges with varied perspectives about the law.”