Judge rejects demand to censor Christian prayer

By Bob Unruh

A federal judge in New York has rejected a demand from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State that a town board be ordered to change its invocation procedures so that the statements from volunteers on a rotating basis would be more “ecumenical” and “inclusive.”

The decision from U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa said officials in Greece, N.Y., did not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause with their tradition of opening meetings with an invocation from local clergy members.

Two plaintiffs represented by the Americans United organization had wanted a court order that the town instruct those who deliver prayers to be “inclusive and ecumenical.”

“The court finds that the policy requested by plaintiffs would … impose a state-created orthodoxy,” the judge said. “The court has also considered the identities of the prayer-givers and the process that the town employed in inviting clergy to deliver prayers, and finds that these factors did not have the purpose or effect of proselytizing or advancing any one, or disparaging any other, faith or belief, within the meaning of the Establishment Clause.”

It was a rare victory for prayer over the general rulings in recent years that often have restricted, limited or censored prayers that are offered at the openings of various government meetings, such as town and county boards and commissions.

“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer,” said Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster of the Alliance Defense Fund, which defended the town’s practices.

“Opening public meetings with prayer has always been lawful in America, and the court here affirmed that it still is today,” he said.

“As the court itself concluded, invocation policies like the Town of Greece’s are constitutional,” Oster continued. “In fact, the court specifically pointed out that government attempts to mandate watered-down prayers that don’t mention a specific deity, as demanded by Americans United, would violate the First Amendment by placing government in control of the content of prayer. An organization with ‘separation of church and state’ in its name should not advocate for a violation of the Establishment Clause.”

The court’s opinion said the prayers being challenged in the New York case were virtually “indistinguishable” from some recent prayers offered in Congress.

The case originated in 2008 when Americans United sued Greece on behalf of residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. They alleged the opening invocations at town meetings were unconstitutional.

“Congress continues to permit sectarian invocations, as it has since the practice’s inception,” the opinion explained. “On this point the court takes judicial notice of just two recent prayers given at the beginning of sessions of the United States House of Representatives. On April 15, 2010, the Rev. Clyde Mighells, of Lighthouse Reformed Church, gave the opening prayer in the House, which ended with the words, ‘It is in the blessed name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that we lay these requests at Your feet. Amen.'”

The judge said also on June 30, 2010, Rev. Robert Henderson of First Baptist in Lincoln, Ill., prayed, “These things we pray in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“The issue is not whether the prayer is sectarian or nonsectarian, but whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, the prayer is being exploited to advance or disparage a belief, or to associate the government with a particular religion,” the judge said.

“The court finds that plaintiffs’ proposed nonsectarian policy, which would require town officials to differentiate between sectarian prayers and nonsectarian prayers, is vague and unworkable,” he ruled.