Pastor Mike Metzger, right, in March leads a prayer at the start of the Greece Town Board meeting. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in May in Town Greece v. Galloway that local legislative bodies could start meetings with religious invocations without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (Photo: Carolyn Thompson/AP)
After winning a U.S. Supreme Court battle to allow religious invocations at monthly board meetings, the town of Greece, N.Y., will open its session July 15 with a greeting by an atheist.
Dan Courtney of nearby Hilton, N.Y., will give the invocation, according to the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Society, which began recruiting nonreligious individuals to perform such duties in the wake of the May 5 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Courtney, a member of the Atheist Community of Rochester, said he volunteered to give the invocation the day the court ruling came down.
“Atheists have been abstaining from the process in the hopes that others would stop giving sectarian prayers at this kind of meeting,” Courtney said. “But once the court decision said those prayers would be allowed, I decided it would be foolish not to be part of the process.”
After submitting his name to the town, Courtney said officials there scheduled him for July 15 and asked him to keep his remarks “respectful,” lasting one or two minutes. Courtney accepted the limitations, though he wondered if religious leaders have been asked to abide by the same rules.
Town supervisor William Reilich said the request had been made of Courtney because of other offers the town had received that seemed more aimed at publicity in light of the national attention the case received.
“One group that says it worships spaghetti wanted to offer the invocation, and I’m not going to allow that,” Reilich said. “We don’t want anyone making a mockery of it.”
Reilich said Tuesday’s meeting will probably draw more attention than most because of Courtney’s participation, but he hopes the invocation won’t turn into “the main act” of the meeting, which should be town issues. “If it’s done respectfully, he has the right to do it,” Reilich said.
The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in the Greece case that local legislative bodies could start with religious invocations without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
But the majority agreed that towns should maintain “a policy of nondiscrimination” in selecting people to give the invocations, and should avoid a pattern of invocations that denigrate or proselytize. The majority also said Greece did not need to “search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers.”
David Niose, the humanist association’s legal director, said that while the ruling “did not go the way most seculars wanted it to go,” the requirement of nondiscrimination was “a silver lining that opened an opportunity” to nonreligious people to step forward and gain recognition. Niose said that as many as 20 percent of the adult population in America is nonreligious.
“To have this occur at ground zero of the Supreme Court case is very important, very symbolic,” Niose said. Courtney will “emphasize the importance of inclusiveness, of humans solving human problems, not seeking supernatural assistance,” according to Niose.
More than 150 people have signed up to give secular invocations around the country, Niose said. He added that in towns where government bodies open meetings with some kind of invocation, “we would certainly expect to have a seat at the table.”
Depending on the facts, he said, a town’s refusal to allow an atheist to give an invocation in the wake of the Greece ruling could result in litigation.