Amanda Knief of American Atheists and Pastor Robert Jeffress of Texas appeared on CNN’s Faces of Faith to discuss the Greece v. Galloway Supreme court case regarding legislative prayers.
Before 1999, the town of Greece, NY opened up board meeting with a moment of silence. Town Supervisor John Auberger, however changed that, insisting that meetings begin with a prayer. For the most part, those prayers were delivered by Christians.
Speakers were selected from a list of local religious leaders provided by the Greece Chamber of Commerce. The list, of course, was devoid of any non-Christian leaders.
While city leaders, attempting to seem unbiased, purported that they did not intentionally exclude non-Christians–they just did not have them on the list. It should be noted that, unlike the norm with regard to legislative prayer policies, there was no requirement that they prayers be inclusive or non-denominational.
This “all-inclusive” policy continued until 2007, during which time a Christian delivered every single prayer.
In February 2008, Susan Galloway, an Jewish woman, and Linda Stephens, an Atheist, filed a lawsuit with the help of Americans United, alleging that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and that the Christian-led prayers promoted that one religion. They argued that the town’s selection procedure was unfairly preferential to Christians, and that the prayers unconstitutionally promoted specific religious beliefs.
Once the lawsuit was filed, the meeting became surprisingly more inclusive, with non-Christians being invited to deliver four of the next twelve invocation prayers. However, as it appeared that Greece Town Board would prevail, the meetings returned to their non-inclusive, sectarian norm late 2009-early 2010.
Greece did, in fact, win the case, with Judge Charles J. Siragusa ruling that Galloway and Stephens failed to prove that officials were intentionally excluding non-Christians, and that they failed to prove that the practice established the Christian religion.
Americans United appealed the decision, focusing now on just the argument that the prayers unconstitutionally established a particular religion. The appeals court ruled unanimously in favor of Galloway and Stephens. Judge Guido Calabresi wrote:
We conclude, on the record before us, that the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case.
The court recognized that while, in theory, the town would have accepted speakers from any denomination, it did not seek them out or announce publicly that they would accept non-Christian speakers. It was added that the sectarian prayers may have been fine, as long as the speakers were not just Christian–and it was made clear that those beliefs belonged to the speaker, rather than the town. If prayer to Jesus is allowed, for example, prayer to Allah must be as well. The court did agree, though, that Greece was promoting Christianity:
… the rare handful of cases, over the course of a decade, in which individuals from other faiths delivered the invocation cannot overcome the impression, created by the steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers, that the town’s prayer practice associated the town with the Christian religion.
Extremely dissatisfied with the ruling the Christian group, Alliance Defending Freedom, petitioned for a Writ of Certiorari, asking SCOTUS to take another look at the case. Supporting Amicus briefs were included from three Arizona state Representatives, a “bipartisan” group of 48 Republican members of the House of Representatives and one Democrat, officials from 18 states, and an assortment of religious figures–even the Obama administration has spoken in support of the town.
The Supreme Court agreed in May to hear the case.
The Greece side wants the court to stop considering the endorsement of religion in legislative prayers and focus instead on whether or not they are “coercive,” meaning whether or not the speaker is openly trying to convert people.
If the Supreme Court sides with Greece, it would open the door to official Christian invocation prayers at city council meetings. However, the door could swing the other way if the court rules that legislative prayers are unconstitutional everywhere, according to the “bipartisan” House members’ brief:
… Congress’ longstanding legislative prayer practice violates all three factors utilized by the Second Circuit [in the Court of Appeals ruling]. The overwhelming majority of congressional prayers — 97% — are offered by Christians. The majority of these prayers include identifiably Christian content, including references to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and Bible verses, such that they would be deemed overwhelmingly sectarian and therefore unconstitutional. And almost all of these prayers from the 112th Congress — again 97% — use first-person plural pronouns.
A ruling on the case is expected by early summer.
American Atheists’ Amanda Knief squared off against TEAvangelical Pastor Robert Jeffress, who compares gay sex to plugging a TV in to the wrong outlet, believes that stopping gay marriage should be part of U.S. defense policy, and claims that Obama is “paving the way for the future reign of the anti-christ.”
Jeffress tried, unconvincing, to defend the Christian extremist side of the argument, while Knief attempted (very well) to stifle her laughter.
Jeffress contends that the government should play no role in regulating the content of prayers, ignoring that this was exactly what was happening in Greece, with the Board inviting only Christian speakers. After all, according to Jeffress, the Constitution he has seemingly never read, “simply says in the First Amendment that Congress can not establish a state religion. It has absolutely nothing to say about the prayers of a city council meeting…the First Amendment is about protecting religious liberty, not about restricting religious liberty”
That’s right–according to Jeffress, any governmental body besides Congress can effectively establish a religion because…RELIGIOUS LIBERTY!
Amanda Knief argued that this should not even be a discussion, as we should not be having prayer at all in a government meeting. Prayer, she contends, could be conducted in private before the meeting if people “need religion” to do their jobs. In this manner, no one is infringing on anyone’s rights or beliefs.
By the end of the conversation, Jeffress was noticeably uncomfortable, and Knieff was in tears induced by her attempts to suppress her laughter.
Watch American Atheists’ Amanda Knief Decimate Pastor Jeffress Below:
h/t: The Friendly Atheist