Town of Greece prayer plaintiff not ready to say ‘amen’ by Susan Galloway

This award presentation and speech was given on October 25, 2015, at FFRF’s 37th annual national convention at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles.

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR [Naming Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway as FFRF’s Freethinkers of the Year for contesting government prayer in Greece, N.Y.]: Susan Galloway is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has worked mostly in long-term care, including helping people with Alzheimer’s. She’s a social justice activist and first advocated for separation between church and state when as a fifth grader she refused to sing in her school’s Christmas concert.

By Susan Galloway

Thank you for this award and the amazing greeting. I’ve never been in a room with so many people who believe in the separation of church and state and are willing to fight for it.

I started attending town meetings during this particular time over the issue of a public cable access channel. I continued to go to the meetings to fight for public cable access and its continuation and noticed a pattern, a pattern of prayers, which were all quite sectarian and all Christian and made me feel uncomfortable. It made me feel like I didn’t belong in a town where I should have. Government should feel inclusive, and it sure didn’t feel that way to me.

As I was looking at this podium, I was imagining the fact that this was how it was at the town board meeting. Instead of “Freedom from Religion,” it had the big seal of the town of Greece and the pastors behind it. I’d be out there with you and they’d be saying their prayer, talking to Jesus and all the other trinities, depending on the pastor. They’d be asking for wisdom and for the ability to make good decisions.

It’s hard to believe that the Supreme Court would have thought that the prayer was directed at the board members, when they would have been behind here. I’d be in the audience and [the board members] would be crossing themselves, and it was very uncomfortable and very inappropriate. I said, “This is not OK.”

Linda and I, who had known each other through other activist work, said, “Let’s do something about it.” I’d hoped that we could solve it by talking to them reasonably. We would reason, “Hey, this is uncomfortable, this is wrong,” but it didn’t happen that way. We ended up filing a lawsuit.

As it turned out, an ordinary person who spoke up had an extraordinary thing happen to them. It went through the courts and wound up at the U.S. Supreme Court. We had lost in the district court and discussed whether we want to appeal it, because we knew it would go up to the Supreme Court. If we won they would appeal it up to the Supreme Court, but at that time we didn’t think it was likely that it would be accepted.

So we appealed and won in the appellate court. As it turned out, there were other cases that were pending in other appeals courts throughout the country. With the timing of their decisions, the courts were split, so the Supreme Court decided to take our case.

If you’re not familiar with our brief, we had videos of almost 12 years of prayers. There was no denying what had happened, no denying how it had looked, how they stood up, everything. So it really came down to our argument that it violated the First Amendment because the town of Greece aligned itself with religion.

Unfortunately, the court decided 5-4 that it was tradition and that was what was right. I do think it was very interesting that the three justices of a minority religion all dissented. I think that was a positive outcome.

Since the decision

I want to tell you what’s happened since. On Aug. 19, the town adopted a new invocation policy, which was almost identical to the Alliance Defending Freedom’s model policy. The Alliance represented the town in the lawsuit.

I went to the town board meeting and saw on the agenda that they weregoing to vote on the policy. I asked them for a copy, but they said they didn’t have one, so I had no idea what was in it. They basically voted on it with no discussion and it passed.

The next day I got the policy and read it. It basically contradicted everything the town told the Supreme Court — that anybody was welcome to do the prayer, that they didn’t discriminate, that there were no restrictions. But the new policy required a representative from a group with a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

In the 12 years of videotapes and prayers that we had, there were only three token prayer givers. That was right about the time we were filing the lawsuit and right after. It was obvious they did it because they wanted to have the evidence that they were allowing anybody to do it.
The new policy will totally eliminate the ability of two of the three people from ever doing the prayer again. It really was a bait and switch. They said, “This is what we do,” and after the cameras and media attention were gone, they approved this terrible policy. I continue to fight it.

I stood up in September and complained about the policy and the way it was handled in putting it out there. The supervisor made a very insulting response when I was leaving. He said, “The hypocrisy. We won the lawsuit and we are allowing atheists to come pray because they want us to be tolerant, but they’re not tolerant of Christians. The hypocrisy.”

To say that a town is merely allowing atheists, when they say they don’t discriminate and anybody’s welcome, it all made me incredibly angry. So I responded and he told me that if I wasn’t quiet he’d remove me.

It was just this pompousness, that they have the right to do this and to hell with what anybody else believes and what is right. They were going to do what they wanted to do.

I can’t emphasize the importance of separation of church and state enough. I think the general public doesn’t understand it. They think, “What’s the big deal? Just don’t listen. Think about something else.”

It is a big deal when you are made to feel like a second-class citizen at a government meeting when you are supposed to be part of that community and when they ask people to stand, you don’t stand.

If you make a request like, “Please don’t get rid of our public cable access” — is that [not standing for prayer] going to affect how they vote and how they respond to me? I can’t believe that’s not going to have an effect. When the justices say that adults can’t be coerced — need I say more?

Look at how many people do things based on peer pressure, because others are doing it. They just want to belong. It happens.

I swear we had a great case, but we had a lousy court [applause]. I think a future case will come and this terrible decision will be overturned. I hope it’s within my lifetime, because we can’t wait.

I want to thank you again because I felt alone so many times. I’m thankful that Linda and I went through this together.

I didn’t feel much support then, but now it’s so wonderful to see so many people who feel this way. Sometimes it gets really lonely and you feel like you’re fighting a battle by yourself. I’m so glad and thankful that you appreciate this. Thank you so much for this honor.

‘I swear we had a great case, but we had a lousy court.’

Linda Stephens’ acceptance speech appeared in the December 2014 issue, and is available online at:

Freedom From Religion Foundation