District Court Finds Invocations Led By County Board Members Not Protected by Town of Greece

August 6th, 2014

A federal district court found that Town of Greece v. Galloway does not sanction invocations offered by members of the County Board. Here is the relevant analysis.

There are several critical points of distinction between the facts of Town of Greece and the prayer practice of the Board of Supervisors of Pittsylvania County. First and foremost, unlike in Town of Greece, where invited clergy and laypersons offered the invocations, the Board members themselves led the prayers in Pittsylvania County. Thus, in contrast to Town of Greece, where the town government had no role in determining the content of the opening invocations at its board meetings, the government of Pittsylvania County itself, embodied in its elected Board members, dictated the content of the prayers opening official Board meetings. Established as it was by the Pittsylvania County government, that content was consistently grounded in the tenets of one faith. Further, because the Pittsylvania County Board members themselves served as exclusive prayer providers, persons of other faith traditions had no opportunity to offer invocations. Put simply, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors involved itself “in religious matters to a far greater degree” than was the case in Town of Greece. 134 S. Ct. at 1822. In so doing, the prayer practice in Pittsylvania County had the unconstitutional effect, over time, of officially advancing one faith or belief, violating “the clearest command of the Establishment Clause . . . that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244 (1982).

Not only did the Pittsylvania County Board members determine the content of the opening prayers at Board meetings, the Board members often directed the assembled citizens to participate in the prayers by asking them to stand. For example, on September 20, 2011, the Pittsylvania County supervisor delivering the opening prayer directed: “If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave. Please stand up.” Second Suppl. Decl. of Rebecca K. Glenberg, Dkt. No. 24, at ¶ 5. In Town of Greece, the majority opinion noted that such a request from the government makes a difference. 134 S. Ct. at 1826. (“The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers.”).

In sum, the active role of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in leading the prayers, and, importantly, dictating their content, is of constitutional dimension and falls outside of the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece. Thus, while Town of Greece calls for a limited modification of the existing injunction in this case, it does not support its dissolution.

This may prove problematic to Chesterfield County, VA, which adopted a policy of members of the County Board offering invocations. It is unclear if it would satisfy this court’s reasoning to offer ecumenical prayers, as no one else would have an opportunity to offer their prayers.

H/T Religion Clause