May 17 (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Thursday
revived a challenge against the town of Greece in upstate New
York over its policy of holding opening prayers at town board
The New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit
found that the prayer policy aligned the town with Christianity
in violation of the Establishment Clause, which prevents the
government from favoring one religion over another.
"The town's desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings
with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that
for more than two hundred years. But when one creed dominates
others -- regardless of a town's intentions -- constitutional
concerns come to the fore," Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for a
unanimous three-judge panel.
Two Greece residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens,
complained in 2007 that the town board only invited Christian
clergy to deliver the invocation. The next year, the town
invited a Wiccan priestess, a chairman of a local Baha'i
congregation and a lay Jewish man to give the prayer. But
prayers at eight of the 12 meetings were Christian.
Galloway and Stephens sued the town and its supervisor in
2008, challenging the prayer practice under the Establishment Clause. The district court ruled in the town's favor before a
trial, finding that town employees did not intentionally exclude
any particular faiths and did not restrict the content of the
But the 2nd Circuit panel reversed that decision on
Thursday, finding that the town's process for selecting speakers
virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Even though most of the
congregations in Greece were Christian, the town could have
invited clergy from outside its borders, the panel found.
Joel Oster of the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents
Greece, said the town was prepared to appeal the case as far as
the Supreme Court.
"The court wants the town to be prayer monitors, to
determine how many prayers in Jesus' name are too many," he
said. That outcome violates the Establishment Clause, he said.
Oster pointed to a 2008 ruling by the 11th Circuit in Pelphrey
v. Cobb County, Georgia, upholding a county commission's opening
But Ayesha Khan, a lawyer with Americans United for
Separation of Church and State who represented the plaintiffs
before the 2nd Circuit, said the prayer givers in Cobb County
were more diverse than in Greece.
"Municipalities need to ensure that no single religion is
advanced in their prayers, and they have to take a fairly active
role in ensuring constitutional compliance," she said.
In a different case in January, the U.S. Supreme Court
refused to hear an appeal by Forsyth County, leaving in place a
4th Circuit ruling that stopped sectarian prayers at county
The 2nd Circuit case is Galloway et al v. Town of Greece et
al, No. 10-3635.
For Galloway et al: Ayesha Khan of Americans United for
Separation of church and State.
For Greece: Joel Oster of the Alliance Defense Fund.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes)
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