More Church-State Issues (With a Wiccan Twist)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 25, 2008 — 3 Comments

The town of Greece in New York is the latest flash-point in battles over the separation of Church and State. There, due to predominately Christian prayers (all but two since 2004 were explicitly Christian) said before the Greece Town Board meeting, Americans United is bringing litigation to force them to switch to non-sectarian opening prayers.

“Americans United sued the Greece, N.Y., Town Board and its supervisor, John Auberger, on behalf of two local residents who object to government-sponsored religious activities that favor one faith over others. The lawsuit alleges that almost all of the board’s opening prayers are explicitly Christian, and that since 2004, only a single non-Christian has been invited to deliver the opening prayer.”

Stepping into the ring to do battle with Americans United is the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal organization.

“The case is a matter of religious freedom, said Joel Oster, senior litigation counsel for Alliance Defense Fund. The Arizona-based nonprofit Christian group litigates court cases involving religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and traditional family values. ‘The town of Greece is following a long-standing tradition established by our founding fathers, and that is to pray before events and ask for divine guidance,’ he said. ‘The town is just following in line with the great history and tradition of America.'”

Of course that “long-standing tradition” seems to have omitted non-Christians almost completely. The town, sensing their problem, scurries to become as inclusive as possible. How do you do that? You invite a Wiccan, obviously.

“[Greece deputy town supervisor Jeff] McCann said the town has long used a list of worship services published in a local newspaper to extend invitations to local clergy for the meetings. The list offers little diversity, he said, and the town has had difficulty locating people from nontraditional faiths who may not have a physical church building they attend. “Now that the issue has gotten some publicity, we’ve had people call up and say they have an interest in delivering a prayer,” he said, adding that nonclergy, the nonreligious and anyone else who wishes to speak the pre-meeting prayer is welcome. “If a private person wants to come and say a prayer, they can come and do it.” Indeed, he said, next month’s Wiccan prayer was initiated by local resident Jennifer Zarpentine, who called town offices to ask whether she would be welcome at a meeting.”

You would think that regular announcements at meetings, or perhaps a small ad in the local newspaper, would have helped flush out some non-Christian prayer-leaders before this whole mess started. Because now, inviting a Wiccan won’t be enough to stop litigation.

“We’re glad to see that the (Town Board) is now cognizant of the diversity of the community, and it’s too bad it took a lawsuit to get them to see the light … While the Wiccan prayer will likely be more inclusive than prayers offered in the past, that doesn’t change that what we want is for the town to adopt a policy that prayer-givers offer nonsectarian prayers.”

Unfortunately for the town of Greece, the law isn’t on their side. Several Supreme Court and Circuit Court rulings, including a prominent case involving a Wiccan, all point towards a requirement for non-sectarian prayer by legislative bodies. So if don’t want sectarian prayers to leave your city council or town board, you better become radically inclusive now, or else you’ll end up with enforced non-sectarian prayer and (most likely) a hefty legal bill.

Jason Pitzl-Waters