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An atheist in the Town of Greece 

Religion can alienate as well as unite. When government officials have prayer at public meetings, they can estrange some of the very people they've been elected to serve, says Hamlin resident Dan Courtney.

The Town of Greece began opening its monthly Town Board meetings with a prayer given by an invited member of the local religious community in 1999. All but a handful of those prayers have been given by Christians, Courtney says, and the prayers often reference tenets of Christianity.

It's safe to say that the Town Board's next meeting will be a little bit different. Courtney, an atheist, will give the invocation at the Greece Town Board meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 15.

"I want to make it clear to the non-Christian community, the minority faiths, and nonbelievers in the Town of Greece," he says. "I want them to know that they can participate in the process."

If Courtney's reasoning sounds familiar, it's because the same argument was at the center of a recent US Supreme Court case involving the Town of Greece. Several years ago, Greece residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens sued in an attempt to get the town to permit prayers that reference God in a general sense only.

The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in the town's favor.

The decision is nuanced, though. The majority opinion says that the town hasn't endorsed or discriminated against any religion. The town pulls from churches in the community; it just so happens that most of the churches in Greece are Christian. And the court says that Christian prayer can continue, as long as the town doesn't discriminate against representatives of other religious groups.

Courtney, an engineer for a manufacturing company and member of the Atheist Community of Rochester, says that the decision provides an opportunity for different religious groups to appear before the Greece Town Board. And people, including nonbelievers, need to take advantage of that opportunity, he says.

Of course, when you throw open the doors, you never know who's going to walk through. Greece Supervisor Bill Reilich told a 13 WHAM reporter recently that he's rejected a couple of "wacky" requests to give the invocation. One came from a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a satirical religion that rejects dogma, he said. And the other came from someone named Lucifer who said he wanted to perform an animal sacrifice, Reilich said.

Courtney says that in those distinctions, the town is determining what's legitimate and what isn't.

"I imagine at some point there's going to have to be a process, a decision process that's coming out of this," he says. "And I wonder how the Town of Greece is going to handle that."

In a recent interview, Courtney talked about his upcoming invocation as well as some of the religious freedom issues tied up in public prayer. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

CITY: A lot of people probably wonder what sort of invocation an atheist would deliver. Describe yours.

Courtney: The theme of the invocation and the theme of the press conference afterward is inclusion. What I'm focusing on is that we need to look to all the citizens in governing the locality — governing anything for that matter. We need to look to what we have in common. Not what divides us but what brings us together. I'll do that in a respectful way that's not derogatory of any other faith position.

Justice [Antonin] Scalia asked a rhetorical question: What would an atheist pray to? When I heard that in the oral arguments, that kind of raised alarm bells. Here's a justice of the Supreme Court ruling on law for the whole country and it's beyond the scope of his imagination that a nonbeliever could even provide an invocation, which I thought was a little scary.

How did you approach the town about giving the invocation? Did you experience any resistance?

I happened to have figured out beforehand who the proper contact person is and I sent her an e-mail the very evening, actually, of the [Supreme Court] decision. I said, "Hey, I'm an atheist, we've been underrepresented in this invocation process. I would like to please get on the schedule and provide the invocation." And she came back with a date and here we are.

I wouldn't say they've given me resistance. They've been cordial, but I wouldn't say friendly. It was essentially "I'm going to do this because I have to but I'm not going to like doing it." That's definitely the impression that I got.

Is the Galloway v. Town of Greece decision all bad? The way some legal experts read it, local governments can't exclude minority religious groups from giving invocations.

From an atheist activist's position, I think this is a good thing. It may, in the long term, end up being the best outcome because they cannot exclude minority faiths.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled and said that sectarian prayer is perfectly legal, all we're doing is excluding ourselves. So I think it's important that we now stand up and say "We need to be included in this process."

It's not our preferred outcome. We'd rather have there be no invocation at all, or if there is, just referring to what we have in common, our human principles or constitutional principles, whatever, and use that to bring us together instead of divide us.

How does opening a meeting with prayer alienate people?

Justice [Elena] Kagan in the oral arguments said it best and I'll paraphrase her. She basically said that when we come to the government, we don't come as Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or nonbelievers for that matter. We come as Americans.

The way she expressed it was, at the very beginning of this meeting, you're asked to identify yourself by either not standing or not bowing your head or whatever; you're asked to identify yourself as either being a member of the team or not a member of the team.

So right off the bat, you're made to feel excluded from the process.

Is there a scenario where opening a meeting with prayer would be acceptable?

There have been a number of solutions that have been offered and one of them actually is to have the invocation before the meeting is even opened. So nobody's saying that the council members can't pray; nobody's saying that they can't bring a pastor in to pray for the council itself.

As long as the council members agree, I don't have any issue with that whatsoever. The problem is that they open the meeting and then the first item on the agenda is the invocation.

I don't think this would have ever gone to court if they had just said, "OK, instead of opening the meeting and then starting the invocation, we're going to do the invocation and then open the meeting."

It seems like just a technicality, but it actually makes a big difference.

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