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Atheist to open meeting in N.Y. town at center of prayer case

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An atheist will deliver the first non-religious invocation at a town board meeting in Greece, New York, on Tuesday evening after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the town's practice of opening its meetings with a Christian prayer was constitutional.

Dan Courtney, 52, said he wrote to Greece's board offering to give a secular invocation on the same day the court ruled 5 to 4 in the town's favor in May in a closely watched case on the limits of religious freedom.

"Ideally, if there has to be an invocation, I think it should be as inclusive as possible," Courtney, who plans to quote from the Declaration of Independence, said in a telephone interview. "It should represent common, American, human ideals."

In May, the court's conservative majority ruled that the practice of inviting a Christian minister to offer a prayer at the start of the town's meetings did not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on the establishment of religion.

The case was brought by Linda Stephens, an atheist, and Susan Galloway, a Jew, who said that the practice was coercive and left some residents worried that the board might look less kindly on those seen to be insufficiently devout.

The western New York town argued that non-Christian residents had always been welcome to offer an invocation but that, until recently, none had ever asked.

Between 1999 and 2007, the invocation had always been Christian, usually from clergy members. Since then, there has been a Jewish, a Baha'i and a Wiccan invocation.

Courtney, along with some of the secular, atheist and humanist groups supporting him, see the invocation as a sign of the growing prominence of atheists in a country where religiosity is widely seen as a prerequisite for elected office. Other atheists have offered invocations at other local government meetings in recent months.

Bill Reilich, the town supervisor, said Courtney's invocation was distinguished for a different reason.

"We've never had one person offering the prayer and then called for a news conference afterwards," Reilich said in a telephone interview, adding that he had no objection to an atheist prayer but was concerned it not become a "spectacle."

Courtney, a mechanical engineer, said he planned to address the media after his invocation. Reilich said he hoped Courtney would stay for the actual board meeting, where various minor planning matters would be discussed.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Eric Beech)

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