TIME Religion

Atheist to Give First Town Board Invocation Following Supreme Court Battle

A Supreme Court decision upholding prayer before town board meetings has emboldened non-believers to give their own messages

As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments last November on whether town board meetings that open with prayer violate the First Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia asked a rhetorical question: What does an invocation sound like from a non-believer?

Dan Courtney has an answer. The former president of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York will deliver the invocation before the town board of Greece, New York Tuesday evening, the same town at the center of the recent Supreme Court case.

Courtney says he contacted the board the same day the court ruled 5-4 that prayer did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the government from establishing an official religion. And he’ll soon be one of several non-believers around the U.S. who have recently delivered secular messages before public town meetings.

While Courtney says he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, he was disappointed.

“Sectarian prayer is very divisive,” he says. “Almost by definition, you’re excluding a portion of people who don’t believe in that doctrine, and it excludes the 20% of the population that is non-religious.”

But at the same time, the Supreme Court ruling appears to have emboldened several non-believers to deliver their own messages in a public forum, including an invocation at the Osceola County, Fla., board of commissioners meeting by a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community and several invocations by a non-believer at Portage, Michigan city council meetings.

In his message, Courtney says he’ll draw on the Declaration of Independence and invoke the idea that governments derive their authority from the people, not a higher power.

“If you’re an American, this should resonate with you,” he says.

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