Americans United for the Separation of Church and State will announce tomorrow that it is launching “Operation Inclusion,” following efforts by some local government officials to interpret last week’s Supreme Court decision in Greece v. Galloway to permit them to sponsor Christian-only prayer at government meetings.
Calling the Greece decision “misguided,” AU’s executive director the Rev. Barry Lynn said it could subject millions of Americans to sectarian prayer imposed “at the behest of religious right zealots who believe that America is a ‘Christian nation.’”
Operation Inclusion is intended to educate legislators and the public about the effects of the Court’s opinion. Greece does not, for example, require government bodies to host prayer at all. What’s more, if a government body does choose to include prayer at a meeting, it “cannot denigrate other faiths, threaten others with damnation or seek converts,” and “local officials may not direct prayers or compel people to take part and that prayers may not be integrated into the policy-making periods of government meetings,” according to an AU statement analyzing the opinion. As the Court itself noted, governments must adhere to a “policy of nondiscrimination.”
AU also announced it intends to help citizens identify a diverse range of speakers able to deliver invocations at meetings that are “welcoming and inclusive.” The American Humanist Association has already announced an initiative to identify secular and atheist speakers.
Some conservative lawmakers saw the Court’s decision as a license to institute sectarian prayer.
In Roanoke, Virginia, county supervisor Al Bedrosian, who campaigned last year on a pledge to eliminate the county’s 2012 non-sectarian prayer policy, seemed to believe that Greecegave him a green light to sponsor sectarian prayer.
“I think America, pretty much from founding fathers on, I think we have to say more or less that we’re a Christian nation with Christian ideology,” Bedrosian told the Roanoke Times. “If we’re a Christian nation, then I would say that we need to move toward our Christian heritage.” Bedrosian admitted that his proposal would exclude people of non-Christian religions and those of no religion at all.
Bedrosian’s long-standing extremism on this issue is evidenced in a 2007 op-ed in theRoanoke Times, in which he wrote, “Beware, Christians, we are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions,” and belittled non-sectarian invocations at public meetings.
“The real battle,” he concluded, “is keeping the name of Jesus as Lord. The name Jesus is what makes us a Christian people and a Christian nation. This is why we must continue our heritage as a Christian nation and remove all other gods.”
Last week, Americans United sent a letter to Roanoke County officials, warning that although the Court upheld Greece’s policy, “the Court also made clear that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits legislative bodies from excluding non-Christian prayer givers or otherwise discriminating in selection.”
Following the AU letter, Bedrosian reiterated to the Roanoke Times that he would exclude non-Christian speakers offering to deliver a prayer, adding, “That does not infringe on their freedom of religion. The truth is you’re trying to infringe on my right, because I don’t believe that.”
In Westminster, Maryland, following the Supreme Court’s decision, the Carroll County Board voted to resume its practice of permitting the all-Republican board to deliver prayers in Jesus’s name, which, prior to Greece, had made the county the target of litigation. Commissioner Richard Rothschild told the Washington Post that “barring the use of the words ‘Jesus,’ ‘Christ’ or ‘Savior’ was akin to barring three notes from a song.”
In Sussex County, Delaware, officials are, post-Greece, revisiting their policy of non-sectarian prayer, which resulted from a settlement of a lawsuit brought by AU, challenging their practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer to open meetings.
Samuel Wilson, a Republican County Council member, told the News Journal that the Greecedecision “was good news. It might not be for the atheist but it is for the believer.”
“Some people are getting the idea that the Greece decision creates a Wild West of government-sponsored prayer,” AU’s Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said in a statement. “That’s not the case. There are still rules, and we intend to make certain they are followed.”