An upstate New York town violated the constitutional ban against favoring one religion over another by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity, a federal court of appeals ruled Thursday.
In what it said was its first case testing the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled the town of Greece, a suburb of Rochester, should have made a greater effort to invite people from other faiths to open monthly meetings. The town's lawyer says it will appeal.
From 1999 through 2007, and again from January 2009 through June 2010, every meeting was opened with a Christian-oriented invocation. In 2008, after residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha'i congregation.
Galloway and Stephens sued and, in 2010, a lower court ruled there was no evidence the town had intentionally excluded other faiths.
A town employee each month selected clerics or lay people by using a local published guide of churches. The guide did not include non-Christian denominations, however. The court found that religious institutions in the town of just under 100,000 people are primarily Christian, and even Galloway and Stephens testified they knew of no non-Christian places of worship there.
The court ruled the town should have expanded its search outside its borders.
"The town's process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint," it ruled.
The court acknowledges there was no formal policy on who should be invited to deliver invocations, and that the town was open to people of all faiths speaking at meetings. But it also noted the town board didn't publicize the idea that anybody could volunteer to deliver prayers and made no comment when a prayer in October 2007 described people who objected to the prayer practice as a "minority . . . ignorant of the history of our country."
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which represented Galloway and Stephens, was pleased with the ruling.
"Government meetings should welcome everyone," he said. "When one faith is preferred over others, that clearly leaves some people out."
The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group that presses faith-based cases in courts nationwide, represented the town in court. It said it will appeal the ruling.
Joel Oster, senior counsel for ADF who argued the town's case, called the ruling "highly inconsistent" with what the Supreme Court has said on the issue and said it means towns will have to "complete an obstacle course" before they can qualify to say a prayer before a meeting.
"The town has no obligation to go outside of its borders as if it's an affirmative action program," he said.