Exclusivity in Diversity's Clothing
The town of Greece would like us to believe that everyone is welcome at their public meetings. After all, that’s what they’ve been telling the courts. They’ve even got a civility policy. The Policy for Decorum at Meetings of Town Boards, first adopted in 2010 and readopted every year since, sets strict guidelines on what exactly can be said during these meetings. But a closer look at the policy shows that these guidelines only apply to board members, town staff, audience members, and anyone making a formal public address to the board.
Nowhere in this policy does it mention prayer-givers. So why has the town of Greece restricted public speech, but not public prayer? When the town board hands the mic to its prayer-giver of choice, it does so with no restrictions at all on prayer content. The board has carved out a clear exception for prayer-givers that does not apply to anyone else attending the meetings. Audience members may be banned from “…the utterance of loud, threatening or abusive language…” but prayer-givers certainly aren’t.
That calls into question the Town's concern for civility. Prayer-givers have been handed an obvious opportunity to deliver messages that exclude and even criticize different points of view. For example, one prayer-giver accused people who disagree with the Town's practice as being members of an "ignorant" "minority." Still other clergy have expressed the view that accepting Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation.
Historically, the Town’s prayer practice has been obviously exclusive, from 1999-2007, all prayer-givers hailed from Christian denominations. In 2008, after a lawsuit was filed against the town, the board broke with tradition and allowed representatives from three non-christian religions to open the meetings with prayer. This ended with the leader of the Baha'i temple delivering the prayer in December 2008.
But then the Town didn’t contact the Baha’i leader for the next four years. He finally called the town to ask why he hadn’t been asked back. They’ve agreed to let him return this month, almost five years after his original appearance. If the board is so committed to inclusivity, why didn’t they continue their diverse roster past 2008? Why did this Bah’ai minister have to contact them himself? And if the Town’s goal really is to be inclusive, why aren’t prayer-givers asked to respect other faiths – or at least to be civil?
The Town’s disregard for religious diversity has led to an environment that marginalizes minority religions and non-religious perspectives. Both of the women who filed the lawsuit against the town were sent anonymous letters that said among other things that, "If you feel 'unwanted' at the Town of Greece meetings, its probably because you are." The writer suggested that the women not participate in anything to do with religion, that they “do everyone a favor” and stay away from town meetings, and reminded them, again, that “hateful people like you are not appreciated…anywhere.” It was signed “666.”