By Meaghan McDermott
Before a room full of cameras and reporters Tuesday, Dan Courtney of Hamlin became the first atheist to deliver a secular opening invocation before the Greece Town Board.
The national spotlight — reporters representing Reuters and The Associated Press were among those present — was prompted by a a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that allowed prayer before public meetings.
As soon as the atheist invocation was over, people began leaving the meeting and interrupting efforts by the Town Board to have a moment of silence for Deputy Supervisor Jerry Helfer, who died Sunday at age 48.
The invocation sideshow drew one protester who said he felt compelled to come, but not enough to identify himself.
Courtney was among the first people to contact the town in order to get on the invocation schedule after the decision came down on May 5, upholding the town’s prayer practice as long as the town does not discriminate against minority faiths or non-believers.
A member of the Atheist Society of Rochester, Courtney, an engineer, quoted the Declaration of Independence and called upon common principals that unite all Americans.
Listening to recordings of the oral arguments in the case of Greece v. Galloway, Courtney said he was struck by a rhetorical question from Justice Antonin Scalia.
“He asked ‘What is the equivalent of prayer for someone who is not religious?’ and there was this laughter in the courtroom,” said Courtney. “That revealed this huge blind spot, not just of Justice Scalia, but of many thiests who don’t understand how a nonbeliever can participate. I felt I needed to step forward and show that nonbelievers can participate and can provide invocations.”
Two Greece residents — Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, who is atheist — recently lost their challenge of the town’s pre-meeting prayer practice. They had argued that the mostly Christian prayers preceding each meeting were exclusionary and unconstitutional. However, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, saying the prayers were in line with national legislative tradition, as long as the town does not discriminate.