The Problem With Prayer In Greece, NY
by John Auberger
John Auberger recently ended a 16-year tenure as town supervisor of Greece, New York—a town of 96,000 people on the shores of Lake Ontario. His four consecutive terms climaxed in a court fight to defend a policy Auberger himself introduced: an open invitation for citizens and local clergy to take turns opening town board meetings with prayer. The case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court last November, and the court is expected to render a decision any day now on whether or not these “legislative prayers” are protected by the U.S. Constitution.
It all began with the idea of televising our town board meetings. Like most town meetings, ours don’t draw that many spectators or participants, unless some especially controversial issue is up for discussion. It had been our long-standing practice to contract with a company to film our board meetings and air them on a local public television station, in order to make the people’s business a little more accessible to the people themselves.
So, one evening, the board was preparing to make a decision regarding movement from our current vendor to a national cable company. And, as usual, our board meeting opened with one of our citizens leading in prayer.
"The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have paid a chaplain to lead prayers at the start of their meetings for more than 220 years."
I first experienced this kind of legislative prayer during my 10 years as a county legislator. It struck me as a thoughtful practice … a kind of humbling of ourselves, before making decisions that would ultimately impact our whole community. When I was elected town supervisor for Greece, I brought the idea along with me.
The privilege of beginning our board meetings with prayer was open to everyone, whatever their religious convictions—or lack of convictions, for that matter. We specifically invited local clergy, but the opportunity was never restricted to religious officials. Over the years, our prayers have been led by everyone from evangelical pastors to Catholic priests, a Jewish citizen to a Wiccan priestess. However, as Greece is a town predominantly populated by Christians, the majority of those volunteering to pray were Christians.
To say these people open in prayer is not to say that everyone stops and bows their heads. Nor is anyone directed to do so. The prayers are frequently punctuated and half-muffled by people moving about the room, shuffling papers, taking their seats. No one is coerced into participating.
For nearly 10 years, no one expressed any problem with any of this. Town leaders received no complaints or objections—if anything, people seemed pleased to see their elected officials adopting a valued American tradition. But then came the night of the cable presentations.
An advocate for one of the local public television companies—a woman from another city—was taken aback that we would begin our night’s work with prayer. She expressed her dismay pretty openly and emphatically, before we politely reminded her that she was not of our community, and so how we choose to run things, in Greece, really wasn’t her concern.
Not long after—and probably not coincidentally—we received our first complaint, from two women who are citizens of Greece. They said the prayers made them … uncomfortable.
That’s unfortunate, but then it’s hard to imagine anything that happens in any aspect of public life and government that doesn’t make someone uncomfortable. If “discomfort” were the standard for abolishing aspects of civic activity, we couldn’t have any government at all.
Representatives of the town met with the women to explain that anyone and everyone was free to offer an invocation—but they made it clear that wasn’t enough. They demanded that the prayers be ended or at least censored, saying they considered the intercessions a violation of the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, which forbids the government to “establish” a religion. But, since our prayers were available to anyone, and no one was being forced to listen to, agree with, or participate in the praying itself, it was hard for the board and me to see where any particular faith was being “established.”
When we elected not to give in to their demands, the two women enlisted the legal support of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf. We, in turn, enlisted Alliance Defending Freedom to represent our interests.
We won the first round, in district court. The two women chose to appeal that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled that our legislative prayers constituted an establishment of religion. Given the directives of the court’s ruling, it seemed to our town board that our only options were to a) discontinue the praying, b) have those praying remove any reference to the Almighty or to the name of Jesus from their intercessions, or c) appeal the decision. (We rejected as impractical the court’s implicit suggestion that we bus in people of non-Christian belief from other nearby communities to balance our opening prayers.)
Since a) and b) would mean surrendering our citizens’ religious freedom, we went with c), and appealed the appeals court’s decision … all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Interestingly, the high court has already ruled on this particular question. Back in 1983, in the case of Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court decided that legislative prayer was perfectly constitutional and part of the “fabric of our society”; they even OK’d government funding for chaplains. That seemed natural enough, since the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have paid a chaplain to lead prayers at the start of their meetings for more than 220 years.
AU built their argument on the idea that while praying may be permissible, praying to a specific God, or in the name of Jesus, is not. Only generic prayers to a “higher power” are protected by the Constitution, they claim. An interesting idea, given that Founding Fathers as diverse in their religious convictions as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all endorsed legislative prayer, and invoked the Christian God in their own intercessions. What’s more, the writers of the Constitution themselves opened their sessions with prayer—to the Christian God—which hardly makes it likely they were opposed to the practice.
The Supreme Court heard all those arguments last November; their decision is due any day. It’s my hope—my prayer—that they will come down in favor of letting their fellow Americans speak their faith openly, in their own words, even in public meetings … even if the prayers make a few other Americans uncomfortable.