Public Prayers: Town of Greece v. Galloway

This is the kind of stuff that should not precede public meetings.  In exactly 5 days, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has characterized as “the first legislative prayer case to be heard by the high court in 30 years.” At issue is the incessant use of prayers, almost invariably Christian, before meetings of the Greece, New York, town council.  This is an important case and, given the present conservative and Catholic composition of the Court, a dicey one.

If you want to hear the prayers, Americans United has compiled a bunch of videos of them here.  Just the top one will suffice. They’re long, insufferable, and repeatedly invoke Jesus. They are an unconscionable breach of the wall between church and state, mandated by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And they also privilege one religion over others.

Have a look. If the court rules for the town, it’s all over in the U.S.  We’ll have prayers in every public function—maybe even in high-school sporting events.

Kudos to Americans United, which noted this in an email about the videos:

Americans United has used video links in previous cases, but never as extensively or with such high stakes – and to do so required an unprecedented effort by Legal staffers.  They reviewed 130 videos from Greece Town Board meetings from 1999 to 2010, comprising nearly 150 hours of footage.  From the raw footage, they created 10 video compilations, each approximately 10 minutes in length.  The compilations were organized by theme – opening proceedings, awards, public hearings, public comments, swearings-in, segments that included children as participants and, of course, a compilation of the prayers themselves.

The Legal team estimates that they “easily” spent 1,000 hours working on this project.  Not only did they review nearly 150 hours of raw footage, but each video had to be converted from a DVD to a format that could be edited using computer software.  They estimate that each 10 minute compilation took 100 hours to complete!


  1. Dominic
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    If they allow Cheeses prayers, surely they must allow Satan ‘prayers’ for the satanists, etc etc…?

    • Kevin
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Prayers should be in Navajo. It is a beautiful language to hear and easily justified as hardly anyone would know what is being said.

      • Matt G
        Posted November 2, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        The Rochester area is full of places with Native American names. A stone’s throw from Greece is Irondequoit.

        My father, who has lived in Rochester since 1970, assures me that the town of Greece is as corrupt as they come.

    • freethinkinfranklin
      Posted November 2, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      i’m sure scalia will be looking for satan hiding in the courtrooms corners, leading him to demand a round courthouse so satan has no corner to hide in. oddly, the only place satan is hiding is in scalias head.

  2. Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink


  3. karled
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    You left out an important part of the name of the organization. It “Americans United for *Separation* of Church and State”.

    • Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Absolutely right. I fixed it, thanks.

      • freethinkinfranklin
        Posted November 2, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

        spankin your host? what kind of party is this anyway :-) no worries professor those of us who speak typo understand ….

  4. Sastra
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I could have stopped the video in the first 5 seconds the moment I heard the town councilman use the words “our prayer.”

    What do you mean “our?” Who are you leaving out?

    They are not demanding a “right to pray.” They are demanding a “right to pray in front of an audience compelled by the government.” Why don’t they just pray to God for a change?

  5. paxton
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    While these prayers are certainly egregious violations of religious neutrality, I wonder if atheists do our cause any good by opposing activities that, while technically religious, have become aspects of our cultural identity. I think of posting the ten commandments in public spaces and Xmas displays, school concerts etc. Christianity grew and prospered by assimilating aspects of existing Roman religions and culture. Why should atheism not do the same?

    • Sastra
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      We can assimilate only that which is ‘technically’ religious but is actually mostly secular in content. Christmas is a good example. There is no contradiction involved in celebrating a Christmas which contains no specifically religious content. Trees, holly, carols which have bled so far into the culture they’re no longer about what they’re about.

      Not so for prayers — unless they are generic indeed and start with something along the lines of “O, let us be good…” Remember, Christianity assimilated existing religions by changing them to fit. They didn’t start worshiping Apollo as part of the service.

    • Marta
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      At some point, and I think the point is now, the positives of speaking up and speaking out outweigh the negatives.

      Additionally, there can be no hope of changing “our” “cultural identity” if we continue to go along to get along.

      It’s really important to be mindful that many people who function in “our” culture are not necessarily included in “our” culture. They’ve been socialized to not mind this, usually, but just because they’ve accommodated the oversights and exclusions doesn’t mean they haven’t been harmed.

      Across our entire culture, formerly quietly oppressed people are speaking up, of whom atheists are included, and while painful and perhaps disruptive to the mainstream, it’s essential.

    • eric
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      “Aspects of our cultural identity”

      The town started these prayers in 1999!!! Grunge rock is a deeper, more historic part of this town’s “cultural identity” than the prayers.

      In any event, even if you think this is part of their cultural identity – yes, absolutely it does our cause good. How exactly do you think we change cultural identity for the better? Do you think change will happen when nobody says anything about how the current practice is bad?

      • Jeff D
        Posted November 2, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        I am worried about what SCOTUS and the faith-friendly Justices will do with this case. They could continue the distressing trend of finding that FFRF (and any other plaintiffs) did not have legal standing to sue and complain about the prayers. Or a majority of the Justices could invoke the dishonest defense of “ceremonial deism” — one truly rotten idea that has been around for a while, but which a couple of liberal justices (Brennan and O’Connor) explicitly labeled “ceremonial deism” in 1984 and 2004, respectively. Where did they get the phrase? From Walter Rostow of Yale Law School, who first used it in 1962.

        In her concurring opinion in the Newdow case in 2004, Justice O’Connor developed and suggested a four-prong test for determining whether a particular practice of government-sponsored speech (“message”) is “ceremonial deism” and therefore is prevented from violating the Establishment Clause: (1) Is there a widespread practice of reciting the message? ["history and ubiquity"](2) Is reciting the message an expression of worship? {“absence of worship or prayer”] (3) Does the message favor a particular religion? ["absence of reference to particular religion"] (4) Is the religious reference a minor part of the entire message? ["minimal religious content"]. The bracketed phrases were the headings that O’Connor used in her opinion. She implied that failing one of the four tests would prevent the challenged government speech or message from qualifying for the “ceremonial deism.” And although the explicitly sectarian Christian prayers in this case would fail prongs (3) and (4) at the least, a majority of Justices on SCOTUS have never adopted O’Connor’s 4-prong test.

        Unfortunately, because the practice of beginning legislative sessions with prayer (in the old days, usually fairly bland and non-sectarian or deist) has a rich history back to the 1770s and 1780s, many federal courts have found it easy to validate public prayers and religious invocations at meetings of government bodies . . . . even explicitly sectarian prayers in some cases, by finding that the plaintiffs lack standing.

        The prayers shown in the videos are manifestly not “ceremonial deism” as Justice O’Connor defined it with her four-prong test: They are not mere lip service, vague symbolic references to general religiosity. But I suspect that SCOTUS will find some excuse to validate them. Stinks on ice.

  6. Stephen Pilotte
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    From the website of Freedom From Religion Foundation it seems that a lot of cities have the same problem :

    My favorite citation from FFRF : This unfortunate 10th Circuit decision determined that a city council is free to exclude an atheist’s request to deliver a “prayer” criticizing the doctrine of legislative prayer,

    I read in Le Devoir newspaper (13/05/29) that in Ontario one city council does 8 (!) prayers before each meeting.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      “I read in Le Devoir newspaper (13/05/29) that in Ontario one city council does 8 (!) prayers before each meeting.”

      What a freaking waste of time. You’d think someone would notice that none of the prayers are actually working.

    • Posted November 2, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for pointing out that link. The proposed prayer by an atheist at the end of the piece was heartwarming.

      OUR MOTHER, who art in heaven (if, indeed there is a heaven and if there is a god that takes a woman’s form) hallowed be thy name, we ask for thy blessing for and guidance of those that will participate in this meeting and for those mortals that govern the state of Utah;

      We fervently ask that you guide the leaders of this city, Salt Lake County and the state of Utah so that they may see the wisdom of separating church and state and so that they will never again perform demeaning religious ceremonies as part of official government functions;

      We pray that you prevent self-righteous politicians from mis-using the name of God in conducting government meetings; and, that you lead them away from the hypocritical and blasphemous deception of the public, attempting to make the people believe that bureaucrats’ decisions and actions have thy stamp of approval if prayers are offered at the beginning of government meetings;

      We ask that you grant Utah’s leaders and politicians enough courage and discernment to understand that religion is a private matter between every individual and his or her deity; we beseech thee to educate government leaders that religious beliefs should not be broadcast and revealed for the purpose of impressing others; we pray that you strike down those that mis-use your name and those that cheapen the institution of prayer by using it for their own selfish political gains;

      We ask that the people of the state of Utah will some day learn the wisdom of the separation of church and state; we ask that you will teach the people of Utah that government should not participate in religion; we pray that you smite those government officials that would attempt to censor or control prayers made by anyone to you or to any other of our gods;

      We ask that you deliver us from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people of the state of Utah by the actions of mis-guided, weak and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness;

      All of this we ask in thy name and in the name of thy son (if in fact you had a son that visited Earth) for the eternal betterment of all of us who populate the great state of Utah.

  7. gluonspring
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    “They estimate that each 10 minute compilation took 100 hours to complete!”

    Their faith that the ruling will hinge on evidence is charming.

  8. eric
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    given the present conservative and Catholic composition of the Court, a dicey one.

    I am more pessimistic than just ‘dicey.’ I think the chances are very good that SCOTUS will support this as “ceremonial.” I’m not agreeing with that ruling, I’m just saying that’s the way I think they’re going to rule.

    Why? Because while evidentially it’s pretty clear that the board did everything they could to make sure it was All Christianity All The Time, their procedures had some techical loopholes that, in principle, made it an open forum and thus not state endorsed. I think Kennedy will give them the ‘benefit of the doubt’ on that loophole. The other 8 votes are a given 4-4 split.

  9. ladyatheist
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Considering that the SCOTUS currently consists of 6 Roman Catholics and 3 Jews, I would like to see how this overwhelmingly evangelical Prostant practice goes over with them.

  10. Diane G.
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I was floored by how very long and sectarian these actual prayers were. And the extreme smugness all around definitely sends the message that you’re-either-with-us-or-you’re-agin-us.

    Watching preachers seize the stage with their unctuous, pompous airs always turns my stomach…and I marvel yet again that 21st century humans still wallow in these absurd cults.

    The one plus is that they seem to mostly be delivered to empty chambers.

    The extreme ceremony given to the Pledge of Allegiance also got my goat.

    • Posted November 2, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Ditto (Diane G. #10) Nearly every video showed an obsession w/ ritual. The preachers were stomach churning.

      Extremely nauseating. Watch at your own risk. Do not watch the prayer videos after eating. Give yourself a couple of hours to fully digest your meal before watching. And don’t watch if you’re planning on eating within the hour either; your appetite will be destroyed.

  11. Bob Carlson
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    An article from the Washington Post says:

    The town and the Obama administration argue that putting the government in a position of monitoring the content of prayers would create more constitutional problems.

    • freethinkinfranklin
      Posted November 2, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      i don’t see any log jam behind just not praying at taxpayer funded functions of any kind … period

  12. freethinkinfranklin
    Posted November 2, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Who is arguing the case for AU? Do you know? The litigator plays a big part in our highly partisan SCOTUS.
    Barry Lynn is a great man and runs a just and constructionally correct cause, unlike the theocrat’s that yammer on about how “god is on our side” , because you know how much god loves slavery and genocide.

  13. freethinkinfranklin
    Posted November 3, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    got this last night from David Silverman:

    Amanda Knief, will be on CNN on Sunday (tomorrow) morning representing American Atheists at 8:30 AM Eastern to talk about the United States Supreme Court case about legislative prayer, Greece, NY v. Galloway. Tune in if you can.

  14. marksolock
    Posted November 3, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  15. Rosemary
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    My class has been studying Federal Government and have just finished Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. While there is separation of church and state by the wall of separation, the Congress continues to have prayer as it is considered traditional. It will be interesting how this will play out, but I do not believe that it will spread to high schools, etc. like others have mentioned in the comments.
    It seems that a nice compromise would be in order, something short and general, like “May the powers that be help us make good decisions for the greater good and not just ourselves”…

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