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JOHN AUBERGER (Town Supervisor; Greece, NY): The August 20, 2013 meeting of the Greece town board will now come to order!

TIM O'BRIEN, correspondent: Ever since John Auberger was elected town supervisor 15 years ago in Greece, New York, a predominantly Catholic suburb of Rochester, the town has begun its monthly meetings with a prayer.

TOM LYNCH: For the benefit of all Greece and mankind in general, we offer these prayers...

O'BRIEN: On this evening last August, the prayer was offered by Tom Lynch, an adherent of the Bahai faith.

LYNCH: Oh thou, oh kind Lord, this gathering is turning to thee.

O'BRIEN: It was Auberger’s idea.

John Auberger

JOHN AUBERGER: It’s important from primarily a historical perspective. Our Founding Fathers believed in the right for us to pray and have that freedom of expression in prayer, and that’s what we offer here today in 2013 in the Town of Greece.

O'BRIEN: But the Founding Fathers also drafted the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from establishing religion—no state sponsored church.

Two Greece residents, Linda Stephens—an atheist—and Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, say for any governing body to begin its sessions with such prayers violates that First Amendment ban.

SUSAN GALLOWAY (Plaintiff): I think for the protection of government, as well as for the protection of religion, they need to be separate. I think when government gets involved in religion, it corrupts religion and I think when religion gets involved with government, it can corrupt government.

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O'BRIEN: A federal appeals court in New York sided with Galloway, noting that roughly “two-thirds of the prayers offered contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus’, 'Your Son,' or the ‘Holy Spirit.'”

Judge Guido Calabresi wrote, “We do not hold that the town may not open its pubic meetings with prayer or invocation. Americans have done just that for more than two hundred years. But when one creed dominates others—regardless of a town’s intentions—constitutional concerns come to the fore.”

This is not merely a contest between a small town and two of its residents. The town’s case has all but been taken over by—and financed by—the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national advocacy group promoting more government accommodation of religion. The plaintiffs’ case has been taken over by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose staff attorney, Ayesha Khan, will argue on their behalf in the Supreme Court.

Ayesha Khan

AYESHA KHAN (Attorney, Americans United for Separation of Church and State): Greece is opening its meetings with a presentation that is uniquely Christian, in an environment where people have come to petition the government. From the time the prayer practice started in 1999, up until the end of 2007—an eight year time period—they had nobody but Christian clergy.

O'BRIEN: But what about Tom Lynch of the Bahai faith, who delivered the prayer when we were there with our cameras last August?

TOM LYNCH (Prayer Giver, August 20, 2013): Well, actually, this was my second time.

O'BRIEN: When was the first time?

LYNCH: In 2008.

O'BRIEN: Five years ago?

LYNCH: Yeah.

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O'BRIEN: You were here in 2008 when this case first came up?

LYNCH: Right.

O'BRIEN: And then they invite you back now when it's before the U.S. Supreme Court?

LYNCH: Right.

O'BRIEN: Coincidence?

LYNCH: Maybe.

O'BRIEN: Do you think the litigation has anything to do with your appearance here?

LYNCH: Indirectly, it does. It was because I heard about the litigation, I checked with the town Clerk to see if they were still doing this, and they invited me back.

O'BRIEN: The lower court found that of more than a hundred thirty prayers offered, only four had been offered by non-Christians.

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The impact of all this is unclear given that hardly anyone ever shows up at these Board meetings. The number of spectators rarely exceeds the number of Board members.

The most consistent spectator may be Susan Galloway, who for years has shown up with her video camera to document the proceedings.

Attorney Khan took the unusual step of including links to Galloway’s video in the electronic version of the brief she filed with the Court, allowing the Justices to instantly view what the lower court found to be an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion:

Voice on evidence tape: Father Alex Bradshaw from our Mother of Sorrows Church will say our prayer for this evening. Father Bradshaw...

O'BRIEN: Father Alex Bradshaw is typical:

Father Alex Bradshaw: We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality and confidence from his Resurrection at Easter. Jesus Christ, who took away the sins of the world, destroyed our debt, through his dying and in his rising, he has restored our life. Blessed are you who has raised up the Lord Jesus...

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O'BRIEN: That the message is predominantly Christian should be of no concern, says Supervisor Auberger, because anyone can give the prayer and say whatever they please.

AUBERGER: If anyone at any time during my 15-and-a-half years as supervisor were to come and want to be able to offer the prayer, then we would have definitely obliged them.

O'BRIEN: You don't censor or control anything that they say?

AUBERGER: No, absolutely not.

O'BRIEN: What if somebody were to come in and say, "Believe in Jesus or you’re going to burn in hell forever?"

AUBERGER: Well, we believe in again diversity to be able to pray, to say the prayer in a manner that that individual decides.

O'BRIEN: So if they were to say that, you would not object?

AUBERGER: No, we could not object because our purpose is to allow prayer, to allow that diversity, and to allow a freedom of expression in their prayer.

O'BRIEN: The Obama Administration is siding with the Town of Greece in the case, telling the Court legislative prayer is permissible, even with religious content, so long as “it does not proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief.”

The Administration relies heavily on a 1983 Supreme Court ruling allowing state legislatures to hire chaplains to offer invocations at the start of their legislative sessions. Both the U.S. Senate and the House routinely begin their sessions with prayer.

The attorney for the plaintiffs will not challenge that in the Supreme Court but will insist if there is to be prayer, it must be more neutral than what occurs in Greece.

KHAN: What we are saying is that when a religious message is presented to an audience, the government needs to be very careful to present only the most ceremonial and inclusive and ecumenical message.

O'BRIEN: Over the years, no single issue has divided the Justices more sharply than questions of church and state and this case is not likely to be any exception.

And as is often the case here, it may not be who wins or who loses that matters most, but rather what sort of compromise the Justices reach. Some form of legislative prayer is certain to be allowed, but how much religion is too much? Some endorsement of religion may be unavoidable. When does it become unacceptable? The Justices takes up the question next month with no decision likely before spring.

For Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Tim O’Brien at the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court and Prayer at Government Meetings

“For the protection of government as well as for the protection of religion, they need to be separate. I think when government gets involved in religion, it corrupts religion, and I think when religion gets involved with government, it can corrupt government,” says plaintiff Susan Galloway.

  • Diana

    Where I live, it is a constant fight to keep the Jesus type religion out of our courts, legislature, and everyday life. Here in Indiana, too many people believe if you are not a Christian you have no rights to any beliefs. Our state legislature spent weeks and weeks debating and fighting about having Jesus prayers at all meetings. They should have been debating and running the government. Now they are trying to change our state Constitution to ban gay marriages-when there is already a law banning it. Why change the Constitution? I find these holier than thou Christians are a real pain, as all people have rights and beliefs. They do not feel that we do have these rights.

  • Kimberlee

    I fully support separation of church and state, specifically in terms of not promoting any one religion as a “state religion”. In the Baha’i writings, it is written: “With political questions the clergy … have nothing to do! Religious matters should not be confused with politics in the present state of the world (for their interests are not identical). Religion concerns matters of the heart, of the spirit, and of morals. Politics are occupied with the material things of life. Religious teachers should not invade the realm of politics; they should concern themselves with the spiritual education of the people; they should ever give good counsel to men, trying to serve God and human kind; they should endeavor to awaken spiritual aspiration, and strive to enlarge the understanding and knowledge of humanity, to improve morals, and to increase the love for justice. This is in accordance with the Teaching of Bahá’u’lláh. In the Gospel also it is written, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s’.”

    However, I do believe there is a place for spiritual principles and morals in Government, especially in terms of justice and fairness in legislation, stewardship of the nation’s resources, and seeking to uplift the conditions of the people in responsible and sustainable ways. In addition, elected leaders should be held to the highest standards of integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and sincerity in public service. For that reason, I personally support the reading of excerpts of scriptures from the world’s faith traditions to uplift our elected officials and legislators and support them in their moral duty to the people. It isn’t to promote a specific faith, but spirituality in the general sense.

  • IslandAtheist

    American’s should be able to conduct business with the government without having to worship a 2,000 year old zombie.

  • Kimberlee

    Island Atheist, you are very correct! However, simply listening to a reading isn’t worship, and I don’t personally know of a major religion that involves “a 2,000 year old zombie.” Judaism and Hinduism reach back 3 – 4,000 years, whereas my religion is only about 170 years old, and we only worship God. Have a great day!

    “Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction… Selfish action imprisons the world. Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit.” – Bhagavad Gita

  • dsmithcsep

    So how do you have any kind of prayer without an appeal to some supernatural entity? The implication is the belief that such an entity exists and (hopefully) will provide good things to them and/or guide individuals’ futures.

    Is it a requirement that the prayer be by an ordained church official and not an agnostic, atheist, or perhaps, “heaven forbid”, a Muslim?

  • Judy Saint

    We just had a frustrated citizen apply to open a City Council meeting here praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It made our local news: http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/video/9390141-church-of-the-flying-spaghetti-monster-minister-delivers-rancho-cordova-meeting-invocation/

  • Peter Nuhn

    “Our Founding Fathers believed in the right for us to pray and have that freedom of expression in prayer, and that’s what we offer here today in 2013 in the Town of Greece.” John Auberger

    So Auberger also believes that the government owes him a salary while he is praying to his god. Why can’t Auberger pray own his own damn time? I guess he doesn’t really believe in anything but money.

    Never underestimate the power of money. The US government commits blasphemy everyday it prints money with “In God we Trust.” Every school child commits blasphemy everyday they cite the pledge of allegiance with “One Nation Under God.” And the town of Greece, NY, every other town and every state legislative office and every politician commits blasphemy when they publicly cry out God. Matthew 6:5

  • AnnieMo

    WE were given freedom FROM religion as well as freedom OF religion by the Founders, who had the historical knowledge and perspective to understand how people in countries where religion became part of the governing components, had been deprived of their freedoms and often persecuted. Therefore, they plainly stated that government would have no established religion as part of its makeup. This was meant to be part of any government function, local, state or national. In reading the private papers and letters of the Founders, it is stated quite clearly they were totally against formalized religion mixed in anyway with a governing body.

  • AnnieMo

    And Jesus said, do not do as the Pharisees do, but go into your closet and pray between you and Your God. As a Christian, I stand behind this and separation of Church and state…..how can I not and still follow Christ?

  • Barbara Mullin

    Unfortunately the politicians give us the prayers but nothing for justice, spiritual principles, morals or
    scarce resource stewardship. They are full of hypocrisy in their constant references to God.

  • ter1957

    yea..we don’t want anyone in politics having any morals or character..that’s ok..take Jesus out of the schools, the kids can’t read the Bible in school, but when they get to prison, they encourage you to….you people will bite your noses off to spite your face..until it’s too late.. go ahead make fun, mock it.. some day you will see.. you don’t believe it.. that’s fine..we don’t make fun of you for not believing..why make fun of those who do..have you ever noticed what people say in a moment of crisis.. it’s, “Oh God !” or ” Oh Jesus !” then..

  • gregorylkruse

    It’s not a question of belief in God, it’s only a question of separation of religion from government. Those who adamantly insist upon preserving legislative prayer really just want to be governed by theocracy, and theocracy is an anathema to Christianity or any moral code.

  • Ruth Esther

    And what is wrong with a Muslim? I am a Jew and I have no concerns about a Muslim saying a prayer. You make this statement, and I bet you know nothing about Islam and only know what you read in newspapers that are selling sensationalism. There is such a difference between a true Muslim and one who uses Islam for fanatical political power. Myself? I am less upset over a Muslim prayer than I am a Christian prayer….if that Christian prayer is directed to Jesus. Jewish and Muslims both believe that there is no G-d but G-d, and Jesus is not him.

  • John

    If only it were this way-it’s not. I, too, am from Indiana (as is Diana from the earlier post) and our legislature is run by holier than thou Christians who have no interests or abilities to share with any other religion. It will be a very long time before they are willing to accept people of all faiths and ideas.

  • Adam

    If you read history about our forefathers, you will find that many of them were not Christians, but Deists. Washington would not say he was a Christian, but stated that to him, church was a social affair to go to visit with people. Franklin said he did not believe in Christianity, but if it kept people good, then it would do till something better came along. Jefferson even wrote his own New Testament, leaving Jesus out of it as he said Jesus’s teachings were good, but he was not holy or of God. And the list goes on and on.

  • Vernon Reed

    I disagree: simply listening IS worship to those who define it as so, and a worship that is far too rare in this loud world. I listened to a video of a Buddhist monk this morning and felt closer to the Divine than ever before. My input was not required to transcend this world. How i wish the Pharisees of this world would just shut up!

  • dsmithcsep

    Nothing any more wrong with Muslim than any other religion, except in the bigoted religious in the US.

    You see you have your own religious bias in that you are less upset about Muslim than Christian prayers.

    The whole point is that real separation of state and chruch is that no religion should have any support in any form by government, including: implied endorsement (prayer), tax support (via exemptions) or indirectly through back door “charity” or vouchers to schools that teach religion (as opposed to unbiased study of religions and their effects on society). Further, the religious affiliation of a person running for office should not be a consideration during their campaigns. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In many parts of Texas, if you don’t proclaim yourself to be a devout Christian, don’t even bother to run.

  • safetyguyflablk

    This Republic is a Christian based establishment of a country called the United States of America. The separation of Church and State was meant to ensure that religion would not rule the government as it did in England and many other countries of the time and today. The Islamic Muslim countries are a good example of why it is not a good idea to allow religion to control the Government. In America all things that are deemed anti moral via way of religion need to be kept from being made law. Abortion is one. Atheists do not have a religious reason to be against abortion, yet some are. The Jewish religion does not believe the Messiah has come yet and they still wait the arrival of such a being. Yet they seem not to be concerned that our money says in God we Trust, that makes sense. The money does not say in Jesus we trust after all! And if the Atheist doesn’t believe in ghostly Gods and unseen leaders of their fate then it makes no difference to them does it?
    I submit that religious people, those who worship in a specific religion, use their Sabbath to pray that their week goes well and their God grants their wishes. A moment of silence at the start of all meetings where people of different religious beliefs gather in work or play seems to be a good compromise IMO. So then when does the reference to God come off the money?

    In the 60′s we had a saying, “Do your own thing.” If only it was that simple and I pray to…..sorry bout that!

  • Guest

    ok then Kim, what is your religion? Mormon, JW’s, or 7th Day?

  • John David Hutsell

    thank you, AnnieMo. please pass this on to your fellows in Jesus.

  • John David Hutsell

    Jesus, ter1957, it’s very frequently “Oh F***.” …then… or “Jesus F***ing Christ” …then,,, then what?

  • John David Hutsell

    matthew 6:5 New Living Translation
    “When
    you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on
    street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell
    you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.”
    like the answer Jesus gave to the guy who asked what he could do to be like Him, “sell everything you have and give the money to the poor and follow me”, you never hear todays “USA! USA!” and “We are a Christian nation” fanatics quote Matt 6:5.

    the founding fathers, a good percentage of who were Deists, knew, separation of church and state was equally for the protection of sects from control of the state as it was for the protection of the state from theocracy.

  • Jamie Paul Bennett

    this is a simple debate we now have a huge number of people who are jediism’s yes you heard that right. so why cant i start a religion (i am a certified pastor) and in my religion we dont pay taxes because we paid them already through products we purchased, we also dont go to war in my religion if they want to fight me come here and prove it. if we have to kill someone breaking into our homes we have that right, etc. etc. or does the government only recognize religions who have been around for so long. if thats the case then i do believe zues was around before christ and i bet the chinese have older gods if you must put religion into the government then do it right and get the fist one or do you believe in the chicken before the egg theory.

  • Daniel Brennan

    Morals are not dependent upon religion. Religion has no place in government, but morals do.

  • John David Hutsell

    John Leland-The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded
    forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking
    freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend
    for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable;
    it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant
    indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and
    Christians.” – A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.
    this is what Baptists were like. what happened to them? in checking it out you can learn a lot about why “christianity” in the US is the way it is.

  • TOM Smith

    Hey Island Atheist…..I’ve been trying to reach you. My name is Tom and I host a radio show on Whidbey Island called SeculaRadio. I’d like to talk to you about being interviewed on my show. If you’re interested, please visit the SeculaRadio Facebook page and leave me a message. We have met before, but it’s been awhile now (at a Whidbey Island Freethinkers meeting.) Hope we talk again soon.

  • genegarman

    “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history,” James Madison, c. 1817, W&MQ 3:555, youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM.

  • genegarman

    “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history,” James Madison, c. 1817, W&MQ 3:555, youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM.

  • genegarman

    “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history,” James Madison, c. 1817, W&MQ 3:555, youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM.

  • genegarman

    “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history,” James Madison, c. 1817, W&MQ 3:555, youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM.

  • genegarman

    “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history,” James Madison, c. 1817, W&MQ 3:555, youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM.

  • genegarman

    “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history,” James Madison, c. 1817, W&MQ 3:555, youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM.

  • genegarman

    It continues to amaze me how the religion commandments in the Constitution are so often misstated and misunderstood by so many: the word “church” is not in the Constitution! Hello? It is a “religious” test which shall not be required (Art. 6, Sec. 3.) and it is “religion” itself (First Amendment) which shall not be established by law, Congress, or any level of government. As James Madison, Father of the Constitution, wrote, “Strongly guarded … is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States,” W&MQ 3:555, c. 1817. It is absurd and ridiculous to rely upon words, like “church,” which is not in the Constitution to explain what the Constitution says and means. For attorneys and commentators to use words which are not in the Constitution in an effort to explain the Constitution, is subject to ridicule and smacks of distortion. For example, Madison did not approve of the appointment of a chaplain to Congress because a chaplain is related to “religion” and religion, the entire subject, is not to be established by Congress or law. Use of the word “church” is misleading and a distortion of what the Constitution prohibits. Hello?

  • genegarman

    HELLO? The word “church” is not in the Constitution. The words “church and state” are not in the Constitution. How long will it take to get the American people and the supporters of separation to understand that specific point and quit using that misleading word? It is “religion,” the entire subject “thereof” which is not to be established by law or government at any level in the USA, not just a “church.”. Share this link: youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM .

  • dsmithcsep

    Perhaps a nit. Church is generally associated with religion where “church” is any location where people gather to “worship” a deity. Thus most people consider church and organized “religion” to be synonymous.

  • genegarman

    The words of the Constitution are the “supreme law of the land.” Understanding the Constitution is a matter of accepting its words. It is ridiculous to assert otherwise! No “religious” test and no establishment of “religion” are the words of the Constitution, both of which obviously include any law respecting a “religious” test or any governmental establishment of any understanding of “religion” whatsoever. The Founding Fathers and the First Congress wrote exactly what they meant! In the USA religion is to be completely voluntary, not a matter of law at any level of government (the essence of coercion). For example, the words “so help me God” or “under God” should never be used or required at any oath taking for public office. In the USA citizens and officials are allowed to be atheists. There is to be “no religious test” for public office and “no law respecting” an establishment of “religion.” As used by the Founding Fathers and the First Congress, what part of the constitutional word “no” is unclear? Our judges and justices should know better and are obviously in violation of the Constitution whenever they include such oaths!

  • genegarman

    What most people consider is not the issue, and the word “religion” is not simply reference to a location. Regardless, the word “church” is not in the Constitution. In the Constitution, it is the entire subject of “religion” which is not to be established by law or Congress or government at any level, as clearly defined by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. “Religion” is not to be established by law or government. In the USA religion is to be voluntarily accepted. Law is not voluntary, which is why the Constitution forbids its establishment by law or government at any level.

  • dsmithcsep

    I assume that you are still fussing about definitions and not principles. Surely you don’t infer that it is OK for the government to endorse churches but not religion.

  • genegarman

    I majored in religion at Baylor University. I have a M.Div. from a Theological Seminary. The constitutional principle is stated in plain English: there is to be “no religious test” for public office and no law even “respecting” an establishment of “religion.” It is the entire understanding and definition of “religion” which is not to be established by Congress, law, or government at any level, just as there is to be no “religious” test for public office. The word “church” is not in the Constitution, but “religion,” obviously includes “church.” James Madison understood and objected to the appointment of a chaplain to Congress. Further, when I graduated from high school, the word “God” was not in the pledge of allegiance, and the public law which added it to the pledge of allegiance is obviously unconstitutional! In the USA, religion is to be completely voluntary, not established by law. You need to read a book on the subject: youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM .

  • ter1957

    John, I’m sorry that you are uneducated and can only think to express yourself in a vulgar and disgusting manner.. get a dictionary and learn to speak as an adult, and actually have a conversation with another person.. instead of spewing filth.. I’m wondering if you perhaps have Tourette’s Syndrome…