Is your town being sued by Americans United (or the ACLU, or the FFRF) for holding sectarian prayers before meetings that invoke Jesus repeatedly? It looks like inviting a Pagan to the proceedings as a legal fig-leaf may just save the day. The town of Greece in New York has just won what may be a landmark decision in Federal District Court over the issue of public invocations at government meetings.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Siragusa ruled in favor of the town and dismissed the suit. “The Town did not begin having prayer at meetings in order to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,’” Siragusa wrote. “…The Town’s prayer policy, to the extent that one exists, is to invite clergy from all denominations within the Town, without any guidance or restriction on the content of prayers. The Town will also permit anyone who volunteers to give an invocation, including atheists and members of non-Judeo-Christian religions such as Wicca, and has never denied a request by anyone to deliver a prayer.” The town has invited clergy to the meetings by using a list of churches included in a local newspaper and by accepting requests from anyone else who was interested. There are few houses of worship in Greece that are not Christian.
So how diverse has the town’s opening prayers been? In the original suit, Americans United noted that “over the past decade, all but two of the prayergivers have been Christian.” The “non-Judeo-Christian” religions, specifically Wicca, didn’t come into play until litigation had been already been threatened against the town. Enter Jennifer Zarpentine, a local Wiccan, who provided the first sectarian Pagan invocation to the Town of Greece.
“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”
Zarpentine would go on to defend Greece’s invocation policy, telling the press that they are “including everybody”. Conservative Christian advocacy organization the Alliance Defence Fund, who represented Greece in these proceedings, are understandably excited by their win.
“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer. Public officials today should be able to do the same,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster. “Opening public meetings with prayer has always been lawful in America, and the court here affirmed that it still is today.” “As the court itself concluded, invocation policies like the Town of Greece’s are constitutional,” Oster explained. “In fact, the court specifically pointed out that government attempts to mandate watered-down prayers that don’t mention a specific deity, as demanded by Americans United, would violate the First Amendment by placing government in control of the content of prayer. An organization with ‘separation of church and state’ in its name should not advocate for a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
An AU spokesperson said they were “obviously disappointed” by the ruling, but there has been no official statement, nor word on if they plan to appeal the ruling. You can download a PDF of the decision and order, here. The question now is if this twist in the battles over sectarian prayer at government meetings will stand up to legal scrutiny, or if it will be overturned on appeal. In other cases, mere randomness hasn’t been enough, so will towns being served cease-and-desist letters go the extra step of inviting a Pagan to the proceedings? It will also be interesting to see how diverse Greece stays once the legal dust has settled. Will Jennifer Zarpentine be invited back to invoke Apollo and Athena on a semi-regular basis? What do you think? Are sectarian prayers OK if they are suitable diverse?