GREECE, N.Y. — An atheist cited the freedoms promoted by the Founding Fathers as he delivered the opening invocation Tuesday at a town meeting in a community whose leaders won a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right to start their gatherings with a prayer.
"On July 4, 1776, the 56 men, who pledged their lives to the document that changed the course of history, agreed to the central tenet that, 'Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,'" Dan Courtney said at the monthly meeting of the Greece town board.
A critic of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the 52-year-old mechanical engineer went on to say, "this central premise still echoes, however faintly, from the town hall to the white-columned halls of Washington" and is "today, more than ever, under assault."
Courtney applied soon after the ruling in May for an opportunity to deliver the "non-theist" message and the town agreed on Tuesday, the earliest open date.
The court's conservative majority declared the prayers in line with national traditions and said the content is not significant as long as the prayers don't denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts. The town argued persons of any faith were welcome to give the invocation.
Town supervisor William Reilich said Monday a variety of views have been represented during invocations, citing the instance of a pagan Wiccan for one.
"It's not unusual that we have diversity," he said. "It's whoever comes up from the community."
After the session, Courtney said, "I appreciate that they gave me this opportunity."
A member of Atheist Community of Rochester, he said he is an acquaintance of Linda Stephens, also an atheist, who along with Susan Galloway was a plaintiff in the case challenging the town meeting prayer. They said the Christian prayers made them uncomfortable. Every meeting from 1999 through 2007 had been opened with a Christian-oriented invocation.
A day after the court decision, Stephens and Galloway, who is Jewish, said they would continue to push the board to be more inclusive and hoped to see atheists among those leading the "Moment of Prayer" that follows the Pledge of Allegiance.
Courtney, who was raised Christian but became an atheist as a young man, told The Associated Press the court's decision was "ill-advised" at a time of divisiveness in the U.S.
"I think it's a foolish decision," he said.
He concluded his invocation by urging the town board "to seek the wisdom of all citizens, and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men."
Courtney explained later that, "The point of that is we need to look at the people ... all of the people, believers and non-believers alike."
Courtney had the backing of the Center for Inquiry, whose president and CEO and Ronald A. Lindsay spoke at a news conference after the session. The center describes is mission as fostering "a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry and humanist values."
A sole protester carrying a "Jesus Saves" placard countered a group of Courtney's supporters outside town hall.
"I think it was an important event and it went off without a hitch," Courtney said.