Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization that is sponsoring the lawsuit, urged the high court to affirm government neutrality on religion.
“A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”
Americans United brought the litigation on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. They objected to the Greece Town Board’s practice of inviting clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.
The board does not require that the invocations be inclusive and non-sectarian. As a result, the prayers have almost always been Christian. Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.”
In a unanimous May 2012 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town’s prayer policy. Judge Guido Calabresi said “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.”
AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who directed the litigation for Americans United and will argue the Town of Greece v. Galloway case before the Supreme Court, said the justices should uphold the lower court’s ruling.
“Legislative bodies should focus on serving the community and stay out of the business of promoting religion,” Khan said.