Atheist Dan Courtney, of Hamlin, N.Y., delivers the invocation at the Greece town board meeting on Tuesday. The community's leaders won a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right to start such gatherings with a prayer.
Atheist Dan Courtney, of Hamlin, N.Y., delivers the invocation at the Greece town board meeting on Tuesday. The community’s leaders won a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right to start such gatherings with a prayer. (AP/Democrat & Chronicle, Jamie Germano)

An atheist invoked the Founding Fathers’ belief in the consent of the governed as the basis of just government Tuesday as he delivered the invocation before a town board which won U.S. Supreme Court approval in May to start its meetings with religious invocations.

“I ask all officials present here, as guarantors of our founders’ revolutionary proclamation, to heed the counsel of the governed, to seek the wisdom of all citizens and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men” who signed the Declaration of Independence, Dan Courtney said before the Greece, N.Y., town board, according to video accounts of the meeting.

The Town of Greece board’s long-standing tradition of opening meetings with invocations was challenged as a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. The suit was brought by Linda Stephens, an acquaintance of Courtney’s in the Atheist Community of Rochester, and Susan Galloway, who is Jewish.

On May 5, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway, 12-696, that local legislative bodies may constitutionally allow religious invocations if they follow a “policy of nondiscrimination” and avoid a pattern of invocations that denigrate the non-religious or proselytize (NYLJ, May 6).

Courtney, a mechanical engineer from Hilton, N.Y., volunteered to deliver the invocation the same day as the Supreme Court ruling.

He told board members in his two-minute, 30-second address Tuesday that “free-thinkers, atheists, non-believers, whatever term you wish to use” constitute a “significant portion of our population” and, as such, are part of the citizenry who provide the authority for governmental action.

About 100 people attended the meeting, including more than a dozen reporters. Outside, demonstrators protested both for and against the Supreme Court’s decision.

Courtney said that before the Supreme Court ruling, atheists had been abstaining from invocations in hopes that others would stop giving sectarian prayers at public meetings. But he said he decided to change his approach following the Greece ruling.

“While we can’t change the court’s decision, we can shift the ground from under their feet,” Courtney said on video after the invocation.

While Courtney did not allude to the prayer fight in his invocation, outside town hall he said, “We have a social contract in this country. This contract states, ‘I won’t use the state to promote my religious point of view, if you refrain from promoting yours.’ Unfortunately, five of the nine justices of the Supreme Court recently decided that this contract no longer exists.”

After submitting his name to the town, Courtney said, officials scheduled him for July 15 and asked him to keep his remarks “respectful,” lasting one or two minutes. Courtney accepted the limitations, though he questioned if religious leaders have been asked to abide by the same rules.

Town supervisor William Reilich said the town received many offers that seemed 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.”

Greece is a Rochester suburb with about 96,000 residents.

David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Society, said that while the ruling in Greece “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.

Noise said Courtney’s appearance at the Greece meeting was “very important, very symbolic.”

The Humanist Society began recruiting nonreligious individuals to perform invocations at the local legislative meetings in the wake of the ruling and Niose said more than 150 people have since signed up.

He added that in municipalities where government bodies hold 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.