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Posts Tagged ‘separation of church and state’
August 28, 2014

Town of Greece’s New Invocation Policy Excludes Religious Minorities

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent permissive legislative prayer decision (Greece v. Galloway) allows for sectarian invocations at meetings of local legislative bodies. Opening prayer practices, however, are not without limit. The decision requires that a local legislative body must implement a non-discrimination policy with respect to prayer givers.  The Town of Greece, New York –  a party to the Supreme Court case – recently adopted a new Town Board invocation policy.  This policy certainly violates the spirit of the Greece decision’s non-discrimination mandate, but it is an open question whether it  actually violates it.supreme-court-civil-rights

The new policy allows private citizens to solemnize the proceedings of the Town Board by offering a “prayer, reflective moment of silence, or a short solemnizing message.”  However, the person providing the solemnizing message must be an appointed representative of  “an assembly that regularly meet[s] for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.”  The assembly must either be located within Greece, or it can be located outside of town if a resident regularly attends the assembly and requests its inclusion on an official “Assemblies List.”

The term “religious perspective” certainly encompasses minority faiths and non-believers.  Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that atheism and ethical humanism are sincerely held religious beliefs.  However, while there may be Atheists, Buddhists, Ethical Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs or other religious minorities residing in Greece, they may not have a congregation within or proximate to town.  So the new policy effectively deprives religious minorities from participating in the invocation opportunity.   This is one reason why ADL views legislative prayer practices as divisive and poor public policy.  If the Town of Greece truly wants to be inclusive and live up to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s non-discrimination requirement, it should give all residents a true opportunity to solemnize Town Board proceedings.

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August 7, 2014

Legislative Prayer Ruling Does Not Permit Prayers by Local Lawmakers

In the recent Greece v. Galloway decision, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the types of opening prayers or invocations that may be given at public meetings of legislative bodies.  According to the Court, clergy or community members can deliver sectarian prayers before municipal and county boards, councils, and commissions.  However, a federal court in Virginia has just determined that the Greece decision does not give carte blanche for invocations by members of a Board of Supervisors at public meetings.town-hall-image

Based on the Greece decision, a supervisor asked the court to revoke an order barring sectarian prayers by Board members at public meetings.  Due to significant factual differences between the Greece decision and this case, Hudson v. Pittsylvania County, the court refused.

In his decision, Judge Michael Urbanski indicated that the Greece decision’s overarching principle is that government officials “cannot dictate the content of prayers offered at local government meetings.” But that would be the exact result of revoking the order.  Unlike the Greece case, having supervisors offer the invocations would deny people of other faiths that opportunity.  Also unlike Greece, supervisors often direct citizens to participate in prayers by asking them to stand for invocations.

Based on these factual distinctions, the court appropriately concluded that “the active role of the … Board of Supervisors in leading the prayers, and, importantly dictating their content, is of constitutional dimension and falls outside the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece.”

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January 29, 2014

National School Choice Week Is Really About Vouchers

It is National School Choice Week (January 26th – February 1st), which supporters tout as a time to “highlight a variety of school choice options — from traditional public schools to public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling.”  But the school choice movement is primarily about funneling taxpayer dollars to private schools, including religious schools, through school vouchers and tuition-tax credits, also known as neo-vouchers.

Voucher proponents are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which our nation was founded: to pay taxes to fund religion.  Indeed, vouchers require Americans of all faiths or no faith to allow their tax dollars to be used for the religious indoctrination of children at schools with narrow parochial agendas.  In many programs, 80 percent of vouchers are used at schools whose central mission is religious training.  And in such schools, religion permeates the classroom, the lunchroom, even the football practice field.  Channeling public funds to these institutions flies in the face of the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state.

Implementation of voucher programs also sends a clear message that we are giving up on public education.  Vouchers may help some students. But the genius of the American system of public education is that it is for all children, regardless of their religion, their academic talents or their ability to pay a fee.  This policy of inclusiveness has made public schools the backbone of American democracy.

Contrary to this policy of inclusiveness, most school voucher programs allow participating private schools to discriminate in some form or another.  For instance, some programs allow schools to reject applicants because of low academic achievement or discipline problems.  Other programs permit participating schools to discriminate on the basis of disability, gender, religion, sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  And some private schools promote agendas antithetical to the American ideal.

Proponents of vouchers argue that these programs will allow poor students to attend good schools previously only available to the middle or upper classes.  But vouchers will do nothing for poor families who cannot make up the different between the voucher amount – typically around $5,000 – and the typically high cost of private school tuition.

School vouchers undermine two great American traditions: universal public education and the separation of church and state.  Instead of embracing vouchers, communities across the country should dedicate themselves to finding solutions that will be available to every American schoolchild and that take into account the important legacy of the First Amendment.

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