An atheist made history Tuesday night when he delivered the first secular invocation at a town meeting in Greece, N.Y., the community whose leaders won a Supreme Court decision in May to uphold the right to start their gatherings with a prayer.
In the 5-4 ruling, the court's conservative majority said prayers were in line with national traditions and should not try to win converts or denigrate others' beliefs. Activists interpreted the ruling to mean that people of all or no-faiths could lead the invocations. Courtney applied to give his invocation immediately after the Supreme Court decision.
In his two-and-a-half minute message, Dan Courtney, a former president of the Free Thinkers of Upstate New York, cited the Declaration of Independence and urged officials to recognize the variety of views in the country:
Free thinkers, atheists, non-believers...this group represents a significant portion of our population... On July 4, 1776, the 56 men who pledged their lives to the document that changed history, agreed to the central tenet that 'Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' Now, more than 238 years later, this central premise still echoes, however faintly, from the town hall to the white columned halls of Washington.
Yet this premise, this foundation necessary for a free and flourishing society is today more than ever under assault. This central pillar of a free society, this notion that is deeply heretical to authoritarian culture, proclaims that it is from the people that moral authority is derived. It is that within us, the citizens, that knowledge and wisdom must emerge. The preservation of this premise does not come from accepting the status quo, but by asserting our rights and exercising our duties that this premise still endures, testifies to its truth.
And we can say with confidence that it is in the seeking the counsel of our conscience that we find the beginning of wisdom. It is in the exercise of our duty as citizens that we find the beginning of knowledge. We as citizens, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of our destiny are not, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant warned, mere means to the ends of another, but we are ends in ourselves. This basic premise, this profound idea guides us such that we need not kneel to any king, and we need not bow to any tyrant.
So I ask all officials present here, as guarantors of our founders' revolutionary proclamation, to heed the counsel of the governed, to seek the wisdom of all citizens, and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men.
At the time of the decision, Courtney had said to the Associated Press the ruling was "ill-advised" and "foolish," but told the local WXXI News following his invocation he hopes to be invited back, saying he had aimed to "get the word out that we are your neighbors, co-workers, we're in the public, we're just like anybody else, we have the same wishes and dreams that everyone else does and we want to be included in the process."
David Silverman, president of advocacy group American Atheists, echoed Courtney in a statement to The Wire.
"America should look forward to hearing more from the atheist community whenever religion is promoted," Silverman said. "We demand and deserve equal time, and the Supreme Court just re-affirmed our right to equal treatment... All citizens are equal, and we all own our government, so anything a Christian can do, an atheist, Jew, Muslim, Pagan, and Scientologist can do. There are no exceptions."
One protester attended, carrying a "Jesus Saves" sign.