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After a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue of prayers at public meetings, the town of Greece, New York, is awaiting an atheist's secular invocation at its town board meeting tonight.
The Supreme Court determined in Town of Greece v. Galloway that sectarian prayers before town hall meetings were constitutional, even if the lion's share of the invocations were distinctly Christian. Key to the High Court's decision was the fact that anyone was allowed to open a town hall meeting, even those of non-Christian faiths.
Now it appears an atheist is preparing to test this ruling.
Dan Courtney, a member of the Atheist Community of Rochester, New York, is slated to give a secular invocation at Greece's Town Board Meeting, set to begin at 6 p.m. The Washington Post reports that such invocations look "[a] lot like a prayer -- but without any mention of God."
Those who are familiar with the sort of secular affirmations that are often given at graduations and weddings will recognize common themes like striving to love one another and reaching contentment and peace. The practice isn't even that novel. Since the ruling in Greece v. Galloway, atheist organizations have been offering secular invocations at various government meetings. For example, the Orlando Sentinel reports that the Osceola County Commission opened in late June to an atheist's secular invocation that men of faith called "professional and positive."
In many ways, these invocations mirror the uplifting and inspiring aspects of prayer, but simply leave out references to "God," "Christ," or other religious keystones.
As you probably know, the First Amendment both protects religious expression and prohibits the government from either favoring or disfavoring any particular brand of faith. The resulting interpretation of these principles has largely protected inclusion of atheist expression in public spaces.
State governments have generally responded with consolation to complaints that license plates like "8THEIST" were barred while religious expressions were allowed. And although it may have been a joke, the Florida government held no grievances about allowing a secular "Festivus Pole" in its Capitol building, next to the Hanukkah menorah and Christmas tree.
While Greece v. Galloway may have seemed to be a victory for religious over non-religious expression, it seems to have resulted in galvanizing atheists to action. In the town of Greece, as in many more towns across America, secular invocations may become more commonplace -- ironically, because of the presence of sectarian prayer in government.
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