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Incensed by invocations at meetings, atheist takes her case to the Supreme Court

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Atheist Linda Stephens has lived in Greek, New York for more than 30 years and has been highly active in civic affairs. She has taken offense at public prayer at her local town board meetings. Stephens says that all the prayers have been Christian-based, which she and her Jewish feel are a government endorsement of a particular religion. She's taking the case to the Supreme Court.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Stephens and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway are challenging the policy. They claim that virtually all of those invited to offer legislative prayers over the years have been Christians. "It's very divisive when you bring government into religion," Stephens says.

"I don't believe in God, and Susan is Jewish, so to hear these ministers talk about Jesus and even have some of them who personally question our motives, it's just not appropriate."
 
The justices will hear arguments over whether the city may continue sponsoring what it calls "inclusive" prayers at its open sessions, on government property.

Greece, in upstate New York has 94,000 residents, says it has actively sought spiritually diverse voices, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer invocations.

Greece City officials say they do not review the content of the remarks, nor censor any language. "The faith of the prayer giver does not matter at all," John Auberger, Greece's board supervisor says. Auberger began the practice shortly after taking office 1998. "We accept anyone who wants to come in and volunteer to give the prayer to open up our town meetings."

A federal appeals court in New York found the board's policy to be an unconstitutional violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which forbids any government "endorsement" of religion, saying it had the effect of "affiliating the town with Christianity."

"To the extent that the state cannot make demands regarding the content of legislative prayers," Judge Guido Calabresi said, "municipalities have few means to forestall the prayer-giver who cannot resist the urge to proselytize. These difficulties may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer, but they are not grounds on which to preclude its practice."

Galloway and Stephens say the elected board of the community outside Rochester almost always invited Christian clergy to open the meetings with sectarian prayers. Both women say they felt "marginalized" by the practice.

"When we tried to speak with the town, we were told basically if we didn't like the prayers, we didn't have to listen," Stephens said, "or could stand out in the hallway while they were going on."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington-based group that is representing the two women, cited records showing that between 1999 and 2010, approximately two-thirds of the invocations contained the words "Jesus Christ," Jesus," Holy Spirit," or "Your Son."

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