GREECE, N.Y. – At their most recent monthly meeting, the five members of the Greece Town Board took their seats, were gaveled to order and moved quickly through the regular opening agenda:
Roll call. (Check.)
Pledge of Allegiance. (Check.)
Moment of prayer. (Check.)
Leaders of this city of 96,000 outside Rochester, N.Y., said they have no plans to shake up the longtime routine unless, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court orders them to.
A ruling could come any day now on whether the city violates the U.S. Constitution with its opening prayers because almost all in an 11-year span were overtly Christian. March was no exception; a Baptist minister delivering a head-bowed, eyes-closed, 40-second invocation.
“Lord, we ask that the decisions that are made will be made with a lot of thought and with a lot of wisdom from you,” said the Rev. Mike Metzger of First Bible Baptist Church. “In Jesus’ name, I pray.”
Greece’s expeditious, matter-of-fact Christian prayer, with no mention of those who believe differently, is at the heart of a case with potentially wide-ranging impact: Governmental bodies from Congress to state legislatures to local school boards often pause for prayer before getting down to business.
But if this city – which is neither rich nor poor and evenly split politically – has been swept up in this potentially divisive question, there has been little outward evidence. There have been no signs, pickets, billboards or bumper stickers.
“I don’t think it’s something that’s being talked about at the grocery store, the coffee shop,” the city’s supervisor, William Reilich, said.
He also characterized the initial lawsuit as the work of out-of-town interests with a broader anti-public prayer agenda, saying, “It wasn’t like residents rose up against this.”
When asked their views, several people around town said they were eager to see what the high court would say and offered suggestions ranging from leaving the prayer as is to doing away with it all together.
“I prefer not to have it if some people feel uncomfortable,” said Jim Callahan, 65, a sales representative.
“Prayer should definitely be accepted and is very much needed,” said Aaron Rebis, 21, a pizzeria employee. “If we get rid of it, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
The case, Greece v. Galloway, began in 2008 when city residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, complained that the Christian prayers at city board meetings made them uncomfortable. Every meeting from 1999 through 2007 opened with a Christian-oriented invocation.
“Originally, we really hoped that if we went in and talked to them, they would say, ‘Oh, we didn’t think about that,’” Galloway said last week in a brief phone interview. “In government, you should be encouraging participation and encourage the feeling of being included and being an important member of your community.”
After the complaints, the city had a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation and a lay Jew deliver four of the prayers in 2008. But from January 2009 through June 2010, the invited prayer leaders again were Christian clergy, according to court documents.
The city accepts requests from people of any religion to deliver the prayer, Reilich said, and the vast majority of residents view it as routine as the Pledge of Allegiance.
Galloway and Stephens have received support and criticism from neighbors, said Ayesha Khan, the legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the suit on the women’s behalf. Stephens’ car was vandalized and someone dug up her mailbox and threw it into her pool.
The women lost their suit in U.S. District Court after the judge found that the city did not intentionally exclude non-Christians and that the content of the prayer was not intended to proselytize or demean other faiths. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the city’s endorsement of Christianity.
“We would like to see the practice of legislative prayer be inclusive of all traditions, whether that includes Muslims and Buddhists but also nontheists,” Khan said.
In hearing the case in November, the Supreme Court’s justices raised various scenarios that included having officials review the content of prayers to make sure they are not sectarian or seeing that ministers routinely are advised of the diversity of the city board audience.
Justice Samuel Alito was doubtful about the residents’ suggestion to eliminate explicit references to any religion, given the country’s religious diversity.
“I just don’t see how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all of these groups,” he said.
Callahan, the sales rep, said that short of doing away with the prayer, the city board should not only honor requests from any religion but also no religion.
“If someone says, ‘I prefer one week we don’t have a prayer,’ don’t have a prayer,” he said.
Jerry Figliole, 68, said he’s never felt forced to participate in the prayer at meetings he’s attended. The audience and board stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and then sit while the prayer is offered.
“It’s not like a service. It’s very short,” he said.