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Residents who lost town board prayer challenge before Supreme Court heartened by debate

Supreme Court-Town Board-Prayer.JPEG

Susan Galloway talks about the Supreme Court ruling on prayers being allowed before town meetings after learning of the ruling at her home in Greece, N.Y., Monday, May 5, 2014. The Supreme Court upheld prayers being allowed before Greece Town Board meetings. Galloway was one of two plaintiffs in the case. (AP Photo/The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Shawn Dowd)The Associated Press

Two upstate New York women who challenged their town board's pre-meeting prayers before the nation's highest court said Tuesday their disappointment in losing is softened by the dialogue the case has inspired.

A day after the U.S. Supreme Court's narrow decision upholding the practice of reciting Christian prayers at the start of Greece Town Board meetings, Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway said they would continue to push the board to be more inclusive and hoped to see atheists among those leading the traditional moment of prayer that follows the Pledge of Allegiance.

"I didn't do this since 2007 to just fold may hands and say, 'oh well,'" Galloway told The Associated Press.

Both residents said they are happy to see the debate their case has generated around the country, where it has been a top news story, generated thousands of online comments and inspired a contest by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to recognize the best secular "invocations" delivered at government meetings.

"People who never thought about this subject are suddenly thinking about it one way or another," Stephens said.

Stephens, an atheist, and Galloway, who is Jewish, brought the case after complaining that the Christian prayers at town board meetings made them uncomfortable. Every meeting from 1999 through 2007 had been opened with a Christian-oriented invocation.

Both women said they received hate mail for raising the issue and were subject to public scorn, especially early on: Stephens found her uprooted mailbox on top of her car one morning, and part of a fire hydrant submerged in her swimming pool.

"Even among the Supreme Court it brought up an awful lot of emotion," Galloway said, noting the 5-4 split among justices that was nearly along religious lines. The five justices in the majority decision are Catholic, while three of the four in the minority are Jewish.

"I think the Supreme Court justices who are of a minority faith understood where we were coming from and agreed with us," Galloway said.

The majority opinion declared the prayers in line with long national traditions and said the content is not significant as long as the prayers do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts. The town argued persons of any faith were welcome to give the invocation.

Hours after the decision Monday, the town board convened for a previously scheduled meeting, pausing for a prayer before taking up business.

"Thank you Lord, for being our source of guidance today," the Rev. Peter Enyan-Boadu of St. John the Evangelist Church said.

Stephens said a member of the atheist community already has volunteered for a turn at the podium to lead a future invocation like one delivered at the Arizona House of Representatives by a member last year. That message, she said, was "an appeal to reason instead of an appeal to God" — even though critics called for a do-over the next day.

Greece Supervisor William Reilich said the significance of the decision extends beyond the town's borders.

"It's freedom of speech," he said. "It's a reaffirming of what our country was founded on."

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