Does Jesus Belong at Town Council Meetings?

The High Court ponders a case where local clergy encourage citizens to approach the local government on bended knee.
The lobby of the town hall in Greece, NY. (Adam Fenster/Reuters)

Imagine yourself in the gallery watching the Senate open for business. The day begins with a prayer from the Rev. Adm. Barry Black, a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor and the Senate’s current chaplain.  Black, as is his custom, suggests none too delicately that God would like the Senate to get off the dime.

Most of us are not Adventists, but the odds are that, even if you would have preferred not to hear the prayer, you don’t feel your immortal soul, or even your dignity, has been compromised. You’re here to watch the Senate do business, and, for good or ill, this is how they do it.

Now imagine, on the other hand, that you get to the DMV window, and the clerk says, “Will you bow your head in prayer to Jesus Christ?”

What do you do?  What if you were told to bow at the Zoning Commission office, or before a job interview or a promotion board?  No one is going to put you in jail or fine you if you don’t join in—but wouldn’t you feel you would be better off if you got aboard the Salvation Express?

On November 6, the Supreme Court will need to decide whether a Town Council meeting—which passes ordinances, grants zoning variances, hears employee grievances, and decides on police promotions—is more like the Senate or the Division of Motor Vehicles. 

The story of Town of Greece v. Galloway begins in 1999, in the thriving hamlet of Greece, N. (pop. 96,000) just outside Rochester.  Until then, the Greece Town Council had opened its monthly meetings with a moment of silence. But that didn’t satisfy newly elected Supervisor John T. Auberger, who wanted prayer, by God. At first he led the prayers himself; then the Council began inviting local clergy to give prayers.  Over the 13-year period of Greece’s evangelizing mission, all of those praying but three have been Christian ministers.  (The town says it has always been its policy to allow anyone to open the meeting if they asked; but that policy seems to have been secret, and town officials made the calls to clergy, asking them to come and pray.) Many of the clergy giving the invocation asked the audience to bow their heads, called on Jesus Christ, led a group recital of the Lord’s Prayer, or asked the audience to say “Amen.”

The audience was completely free to walk out, look at the ceiling, or stick their fingers in their ears and yell “No one’s listening to you!”  That is, they were not subject to being jailed or fined.  Whether you’d feel “free” in those circumstances may, in fact, be the central question in the case.

Here’s how lawyers for the Town of Greece put it in their brief: “As understood by the Framers, government ‘established’ religion either by compelling the payment of taxes to support a favored religion or by compelling obedience to the tenets of a particular faith.” Asking people to pray while you ponder their zoning variance thus isn’t a problem—unless you ask for money up front, or tell them to say ten Our Fathers and ask again.

Religious conservatives have been promoting the “coercion” test for  nearly a generation. In 1992, they seemed posed for victory.   Lee v. Weisman concerned a local high-school graduation ceremony, with a Rabbi invited to give an elaborate invocation asking God’s blessings on the graduates.  No one was asked to join in, and there was no reference to any particular denomination of Christianity or Judaism. So confident were the “coercion” advocates that the School Board’s lawyer told the Court that a state government could constitutionally set up an official state religion, as long as it was “purely noncoercive.”

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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