The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent permissive legislative prayer decision (Greece v. Galloway) allows for sectarian invocations at meetings of local legislative bodies. Opening prayer practices, however, are not without limit. The decision requires that a local legislative body must implement a non-discrimination policy with respect to prayer givers. The Town of Greece, New York - a party to the Supreme Court case – recently adopted a new Town Board invocation policy. This policy certainly violates the spirit of the Greece decision’s non-discrimination mandate, but it is an open question whether it actually violates it.
The new policy allows private citizens to solemnize the proceedings of the Town Board by offering a “prayer, reflective moment of silence, or a short solemnizing message.” However, the person providing the solemnizing message must be an appointed representative of “an assembly that regularly meet[s] for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.” The assembly must either be located within Greece, or it can be located outside of town if a resident regularly attends the assembly and requests its inclusion on an official “Assemblies List.”
The term “religious perspective” certainly encompasses minority faiths and non-believers. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that atheism and ethical humanism are sincerely held religious beliefs. However, while there may be Atheists, Buddhists, Ethical Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs or other religious minorities residing in Greece, they may not have a congregation within or proximate to town. So the new policy effectively deprives religious minorities from participating in the invocation opportunity. This is one reason why ADL views legislative prayer practices as divisive and poor public policy. If the Town of Greece truly wants to be inclusive and live up to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s non-discrimination requirement, it should give all residents a true opportunity to solemnize Town Board proceedings.