Will the Include a Wiccan Gambit Work?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 15, 2009 — 5 Comments

Way back in March of 2008 the town of Greece, New York had a problem. Americans United had decided to bring litigation against the Town Board for a policy of starting their meetings almost exclusively with sectarian Christian prayers. Hoping to avoid losing a lawsuit, the Town Board threw open their doors to any religion that wanted to give an opening prayer, even if they were Pagans.

“[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.”

So local resident Jennifer Zarpentine did indeed give an opening invocation in Greece, making her re-think the issue of sectarian prayers now that she was included.

“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 said she was pleased by the opportunity to pray at the meeting. ‘I thought the invocation went well,’ she said. ‘The board was respectful;, they all bowed their heads.’ As far as the lawsuit goes, Zarpentine said the town isn’t being discriminatory. ‘They are including everybody,’ she said. ‘They asked me.’

Americans United were, naturally, unmoved by the town of Greece’s recent inclusiveness, so litigation moved forward. This past Thursday Americans United and the town of Greece (represented by the right-wing Alliance Defence Fund) gave their arguments to a judge and are now awaiting a summary judgement in about six weeks.

“In the hour-long hearing, Richard R. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United, argued that the plaintiff is concerned not with prayer before the meetings but with sectarian prayers that have dominated the practice since Auberger started it in 1999. According to court papers, of 104 prayers from 1999 through 2007, none were non-Christian. Since the lawsuit was filed, the majority of the prayers have been Christian, with one being delivered by a Wiccan priestess and two others by non-clergy. Katskee stressed that the plaintiff is not against Christian prayer, but that the prayers have been aimed at one sect … Joel Oster, a senior litigation counsel for Colorado-based Alliance Defense Fund that is representing Greece, said that it is not right to ask the town to police the clergy. “It is not the town’s place to tell the clergy what to say,” Oster said. “It would cause a nightmare for the town.” Auberger has said that the town’s practice is to have an open invitation to any Greece resident to contact the town about giving the prayer.”

So now we’ll find out if a legal fig-leaf in the form of a single sectarian Wiccan prayer (amidst a hundred Christian prayers to Jesus) can aid this New York town and their socially conservative legal team overcome the AU and some pretty strong legal precedents in their favor. Will Greece’s “include a Wiccan” gambit work? Or will they be forced to switch to non-sectarian prayers? In about six weeks we get to find out.

Jason Pitzl-Waters