Is the Town of Greece a Christian One?

Here’s a press release that Congressman Chris Collins issued:

Congressman Collins and 84 members of the House of Representatives file an Amicus Curiae brief to support religious freedom

Congressman Chris Collins (NY-27) showed his support for the town of Greece, NY in the upcoming Supreme Court case, Greece v. Galloway today by signing an Amicus Curiae brief in support of Greece.

Greece v. Galloway, which concerns the religious establishment clause in the Constitution, will be argued this fall.

“It is clear that the Town of Greece has not violated the United States Constitution,” said Congressman Collins. “People from all over the world come to this country to escape religious persecution and are entitled to pray together with their communities as they please.”

Starting in 1999, the Greece Town Board began its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month.” Town officials invited member of all faiths, and atheists, and welcomed anyone who volunteered to give the opening prayer. Two town residents sued, stating the primarily Christian prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The federal appeals court in New York agreed, because it found that almost all of the chaplains who offered to pray were Christian. Even though people of all faiths were welcome to offer their own prayers, the court found the prayer unconstitutional and the town of Greece was forced to stop.

Today, 85 Members of Congress filed an Amicus Curiae brief stating the history of religious freedom and the importance of legislative prayer as observed daily on a national level.

“Each legislative day, the Senate and House of Representatives open with a prayer from ministers of all faiths, from all over the country,” continued Congressman Collins. “As our federal legislative bodies welcome all, so did the Town of Greece. We must remain a nation that does not force a religion on any person, but is accepting of those who wish to publicly profess their faith and ask for guidance.”

Town of Greece v. Galloway is scheduled for oral arguments in the Supreme Court toward the end of this year.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, a District Court Judge ruled in favor of the town, dismissing the Complaint. The plaintiffs appealed, and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that,

…the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case.

The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint.

adding,

We do not hold that the town may not open its public meetings with a prayer or invocation. Such legislative prayers, as Marsh holds and as we have repeatedly noted, do not violate the Establishment Clause. Nor do we hold that any prayers offered in this context must be blandly “nonsectarian.” A requirement that town 34*34 officials censor the invocations offered— beyond the limited requirement, recognized in Marsh, that prayer-givers be advised that they may not proselytize for, or disparage, particular religions—is not only not required by the Constitution, but risks establishing a “civic religion” of its own. Occasional prayers recognizing the divinities or beliefs of a particular creed, in a context that makes clear that the town is not endorsing or affiliating itself with that creed or, more broadly, with religion or non-religion, are not offensive to the Constitution. Nor are we adopting a test that permits prayers in theory but makes it impossible for a town in practice to avoid Establishment Clause problems. To the contrary, it seems to us that a practice such as the one to which the town here apparently aspired—one that is inclusive of multiple beliefs and makes clear, in public word and gesture, that the prayers offered are presented by a randomly chosen group of volunteers, who do not express an official town religion, and do not purport to speak on behalf of all the town’s residents or to compel their assent to a particular belief—is fully compatible with the First Amendment.

What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause. Where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town takes no steps to avoid the identification, but rather conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them, a reasonable objective observer would perceive such an affiliation.

So – the Court didn’t say Greece couldn’t start its town board meetings with an invocation or prayer – it’s just that town hall can’t turn itself into a particular church for that period of time. They must be random, they must be voluntary, and they must be inclusive enough so as to not convey the idea that the town considers itself to be a Christian town.

Collins’ release is dated August 2nd, and the SCOTUSBlog doesn’t have the specific brief online. I look forward to reading Mr. Collins’ thoughts on what the 2nd Circuit decided.

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