For the past six months, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has debated whether it should restrict who gives the opening prayer at each assembly meeting. They’re not alone; similar disputes are taking place across the country. Several years ago, a lawsuit over prayer in public meetings consumed a town in upstate New York, eventually making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Greece, New York looks like your typical New England town: quiet tree-lined streets, modest ranch-style homes and a lot of churches.
Nearly a decade ago, Greece made national headlines when two residents sued the city over the prayer that begins each town board meeting. They alleged the invocations, though technically open to all faiths, were almost exclusively Christian.
Linda Stephens was one of the plaintiffs. The retired school librarian has lived in Greece for over 40 years, but when she first filed the lawsuit, she says she felt like an outsider in her own community.
“I had a lot of unpleasant things happen to me. My house was vandalized a couple times. I was accosted in public a time or two. In fact, my neighbor told me one day that I should move out of town,” said Stephens.
Stephens identifies as an atheist and her co-plaintiff, Susan Galloway, is Jewish.
For years, the Greece Town Board had observed a moment of silence before their monthly meetings. In 1999, the board replaced it with an opening prayer given by local clergy.
Town employees selected the “Chaplains of the Month” by calling congregations within city limits. Because the churches in Greece are almost entirely Christian, the vast majority of invocations were as well.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State represented the plaintiffs in the case. Robert Goldstein is the president of the organization’s Rochester chapter.
“We felt it was an important principle [that] had to do with the extent to which a local governing body can engage in activities which encourage one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. We felt that was a fundamental violation of the separation of church of state,” said Goldstein.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the town, setting a legal precedent for prayer in public meetings.
Brett Harvey serves as senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal organization that represented Greece in the lawsuit. He says the Supreme Court ruling states that towns are not obligated to ensure a diversity of religions are represented, if it means looking beyond the boundaries of their communities.
“The question is does the government have an obligation to allow anyone and everyone access to their microphones or can they set up common sense regulations to identify who within the community is best-suited to deliver an invocation,” said Harvey.
Fast forward to 2017. That same question—who can give an invocation—is at the heart of a lawsuit between the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.
The Borough instituted an invocation policy last summer, after Iris Fontana, a member of the Satanic Temple and one of three plaintiffs in the case, gave an invocation ending with the words “Hail Satan.”
Under the new policy, a religious association that meets regularly in the Borough can nominate a representative to give the invocation.
The policy is similar to the one the town of Greece adopted after the Supreme Court ruling, but the ACLU of Alaska is suing the Borough, saying it violates the right to free speech.
“Legislative invocations do have a long, storied history in America, but the kind of policy that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has implemented is not of a kind that the Supreme Court has upheld as being constitutionally permissible,” said ACLU attorney Eric Glatt at a press conference in December.
Alliance Defending Freedom, the same organization that represented the town of Greece, is now representing the Borough pro bono.
The Borough has also hired the Anchorage-based law firm Brena, Bell & Clarkson. Public records show the Borough had spent $18,390 on legal and administrative costs related to the invocation policy as of Feb. 13.
The lawsuit against the Borough has now moved to state court, but a trial date has yet to be scheduled.
Back in the town of Greece, although Linda Stephens lost the case, she says having a written invocation policy in place has created a more inclusive atmosphere in the town board meetings.
“From my point of view, things turned out well because atheists now regularly give invocations at Greece town board meetings,” said Stephens. “We’re becoming a part of the acknowledged community, so I think it had some very good benefits.”
Stephens gave an invocation before the Greece Town Board last February and she says she felt proud. She’s scheduled to give another in July.