The Supreme Court decision handed down yesterday, Greece v. Galloway, gained my attention because of its subject matter. A thin, all-Christian, 5 to 4 majority of Supreme Court justices ruled that it is not a violation of the First Amendment for the Town of Greece government to compel town citizens to sit through a Christian religious ceremony, while excluding non-Christians from having their own government-endorsed religious ceremonies, because the local government has made it a tradition to do so.
I also have a personal reaction to this ruling as well. I grew up in the village of Hilton, right next to the Town of Greece. Many of my classmates were from Greece. I spent a great deal of time there as a child, and have been back many times as an adult.
I remember what it meant to be a non-Christian in that part of upstate New York. I remember the culture of animosity by Christians toward those who didn’t share their religion. I remember the way that local schools and government bodies used conspicuous public prayer as a way to show who was accepted in the community, and who was not. I remember the way that Christian children would shout the words “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance at school. I remember being told by my homeroom teacher that I would have to stand up and say the entire pledge along with everyone else, whether I believed in God or not, because it was the patriotic thing to do. I remember the songs we would sing in school, praising the Christian god, while we never once sang any songs from other religions.
I remember the way my middle school biology teacher, Mr. Aldridge, would teach the subject of evolution. He would ridicule it, saying it was as likely for a typewriter to assemble itself in the middle of the woods from sticks and stones as it was for life to have evolved through natural processes. He would spend weeks lecturing us that Charles Darwin was a fraud, telling us that the Earth was made in 7 days by the god worshiped by Jesus.
Mr. Aldridge was a preacher at a local Christian church.
I remember what the school administration did when I complained that Mr. Aldridge was teaching religion as science, violating the First Amendment rights of public school students and their families. They told me that if I didn’t like it, I could leave the classroom and go sit in the office instead of going to biology class. It would be Creationism or nothing.
It’s this local culture of aggressive disrespect that set the stage for the decision by the Town of Greece to include Christian religious rituals in its public meetings. It is the governmental endorsement and support of this attitude of thorough discrimination against non-Christians that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in his dissenting opinion, explained that “Greece is a predominantly Christian town, but it is not exclusively so. A map of the town’s houses of worship introduced in the District Court shows many Christian churches within the town’s limits. It also shows a Buddhist temple within the town and several Jewish synagogues just outside its borders, in the adjacent city of Rochester, New York. Id., at 24. Yet during the more than 120 monthly meetings at which prayers were delivered during the record period (from 1999 to 2010), only four prayers were delivered by non-Christians. And all of these occurred in 2008, shortly after the plaintiffs began complaining about the town’s Christian prayer practice and nearly a decade after that practice had commenced.”
Yesterday, Peregrin Wood described the prayer rituals of the Greece Town Board as “almost completely Christian”. The truth is that the Town Board’s religious rituals were 100% Christian for years, until citizens of the town began protesting the lack of religious diversity at the town’s public meetings. The Town Board responded by inviting only one local non-Christian group (Bahai) to sponsor a prayer at one meeting. Three other non-Christian religious leaders had to approach the Town Board and demand the opportunity to participate.
For one year, there was religious diversity in the Greece Town Board meetings, and then, the town’s government went right back to allowing only Christian preachers to lead religious rituals at the public legislative meetings. Once again, non-Christians were systematically excluded. This blatantly discriminatory policy is what the Supreme Court approved of yesterday, so that the legal precedent in the USA is now that local governments can discriminate against non-Christians with impunity.
It isn’t just atheists who object to this new eroision of religious liberty in the USA. An amicus brief filed by a coalition of minority religious groups in support of the First Amendment constitutional rights of Galloway noted that the exclusively Christian religious ceremonies of the Greece Town Board create a discriminatory filter that encourages Christians to participate in local government while discouraging non-Christians from doing so. This filter can have concrete economic impacts on non-Christians, the brief observes, noting that, “Individual citizens often have to participate directly in city or town council meetings to conduct important business. For example, in Greece, residents seeking to open many types of businesses such as restaurants must, by law, appear in person at one or more Board meetings. Resp’ts’ Br. 5-6. In any event, citizens who adhere to a different faith should not have to choose between, on the one hand, participating at the public government meeting that includes an overtly Christian observance and, on the other, not participating in the government meeting at all.”
The new legal standard in the United States is positively medieval. If you want to make a living as an shopkeeper, if you want to address your representatives in government, if you want to be informed about what your elected officials are doing on your behalf, you’ll be forced to participate in Christian religious rituals, and pay respects to Christian leaders first.