San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

November 10th, 2008
Freethought San Marcos: Mixing government with religion

Freethought San Marcos: A Column
Mercury Columnist

In this inaugural column of Freethought San Marcos, I want to explain what I hope to accomplish by writing a weekly column, and give readers an idea of what they might expect and what they should not expect to find in this column.

Freethinking, or freethought, is a philosophical viewpoint. There are great variations in what freethinkers believe and what ideas are important to them.  Generally, though, freethinkers hold to the proposition that beliefs should be formed on the basis of rational processes, such as the application of science and logic, rather than by emotion, authority, tradition, sectarianism, prejudice, conventional wisdom, or dogma.

I chose the name for the column because of a historic connection with German Freethinkers who moved to the Texas Hill Country before the Civil War. I have considered myself a freethinker for many years and came across a reference to this immigration of freethinkers to Texas two years ago while reading Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye. Many of these freethinkers lived in or founded New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Boerne, Sisterdale, Luckenbach, Comfort, and other small towns in our area.

About 1,000 freethinkers moved here to escape political and religious persecution in Europe. They included accomplished doctors, writers, newspaper founders, philosophers, and inventors. One of them had been a personal friend of the German writer and humanist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who died in 1832. One group, killed near Comfort for its freethinking ways, represents a heritage that modern freethinkers should not ignore or forget.

I will try to approach each issue that I write about using the ideals of freethinking listed above. This approach can be seen, I think, in a column published by the San Marcos Mercury a few weeks ago, in which I provided information that led me to conclude that San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz had used public funds without city council authorization to carry out political outreach to clergy and religious leaders in San Marcos for the last four years. This view was supported, in part, by the mayor’s campaign statement in her recent re-election campaign, that she followed God’s will in conducting the business of government. As a strong and life-long supporter of the separation of government and religion, I found the mayor’s conduct inappropriate, unconstitutional, and without legal authority.

While many people believe that religion and government should be intertwined, I find that such involvement of government in religion is contrary to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. That part of the First Amendment prohibits the promotion of religion by all levels of government. I summarized in my earlier column the court’s three-pronged test for analyzing government action that involves religion and found that the Mayor had violated that test.

While it is true that the Constitution does not use the words “separation of church and state,” as one pastor commented about my recent column, the establishment clause of the First Amendment has long been interpreted to mean just that, as its authors apparently intended. While I disagree frequently with the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the Constitution, it is not a valid refutation of my assertion that Narvaiz has violated the Constitution to argue that the words “separation of church and state” are not found in that document, since that phrase is an integral part of First Amendment jurisprudence.

It is up to the San Marcos City Council to hold Mayor Narvaiz responsible for her use of public funds to further her theocratic vision of local government.  However, based on their general unwillingness to challenge Narvaiz to date, I don’t expect the city council to confront the Mayor about her use of the council’s expense budget in this way.

I have no doubt that those in attendance at these clergy breakfasts gained useful information about what the city was doing, and I said so in my original column. But there are many other community leaders who could have received the same benefits had they been invited to these taxpayer-funded events, including neighborhood association leaders, realtors, scout leaders, youth sports organizers, social service agency leaders, reporters, and many others.  Looked at in context, based on what we now know about the mayor, these events cemented the mayor’s relationships with clergy and religious leaders to her sole political advantage.

Freethought is a philosophical, not a political, position. It suits me largely because I am not a political partisan. While I considered myself a Democrat for many years, I gave up that affiliation in 1992 and regularly cast votes for candidates from many parties, as well as independents. Today, freethought embraces adherents of virtually all political and social persuasions, including libertarians, socialists, communists, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, communitarians, and the unaffiliated. It includes capitalists (e.g., Adam Smith and Ayn Rand), free traders, fair traders, consumerists, nationalists, internationalists, isolationists, interventionists, and peacemakers.

American freethinkers, along with many traditional religious adherents, agree in their support of state/church separation based on the belief that if government becomes involved with religion, it will distort religion and interfere with a person’s private religious beliefs, as well as use the government’s power to promote the religious views of the public officials who seek political advantage in taking this direction. The freedom of religion is among those for which this country was founded and is too important to be abused for political gain.

As I write each week, I will try to honor the best tradition of freethinking. I hope my effort will encourage others to respond both rationally and logically, based on reason and evidence, rather than from adherence to dogma, tradition, or emotion.  My ethos, whatever your response, is that we should disagree amiably and try to persuade others, following the freethought tradition. I will do my best to follow these ideals.

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10 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Mixing government with religion

  1. Gee, I didn’t know that people who have intact critical thinking skills had a distinct “name” — I always thought we were simply more “rational” than most!

    I agree with Mr. Hankins regarding the intent of the framers to keep the church out of state matters and the state out of church matters, and that it is important, at both a theoretical and practical level to remain vigilant and assure that it remains so. However, I also think that each of us is entitled to our religious views, including expressing that a “religious philosophy” guides our political activities — and that includes Ms. Narvaiz’ right to proclaim that to be her position. The voters are, of course, free to “punish” or “reward” that declaration, if they so choose, without any bias for or against their own religious views. Not knowing anything about the alleged use of public funds to conduct what Mr. Hankins asserts are “religious activities”, my comment about that behavior is that perhaps we need to separate “practice of religion” from cheap political behavior that we see all the time, motivated by a desire to win — with a “religious face” simply being used as a cover of righteousness. Again, I don’t know the details, but that sounds more like what Mr. Hankins described than it does a violation of the establishment clause. (Understanding I’m not a constitutional scholar.)

    So, “freethinkers” and everyone else often need to take a deep breath and get over their knee-jerk fear that any expression of religious philosophy by a public figure or in a public process invites the destruction of the Union. If there was illegal — or even “inappropriate” — campaign activities, that indeed should be investigated and dealt with, but the sole fact that there is a “religious connection” does not, in my humble opinion, make it a violation of the establishment clause. After all, the way Mr. Hankins presented it, “freethinking” could well be styled as a “religious philosophy” — that is, they believe the world “should” be approached and explained they way the do because that is what they believe!!

    Thanks for reading.

  2. You need to read Mr. Hankins column from Oct. 21 before concluding that he is having a knee-jerk reaction to an expression of the Mayor’s religious philosophy. Mr. Hankins objects to the Mayor’s use of taxpayers dollars in the funding of monthly meetings with the City’s clergy – closed meetings to which no one else is invited – and which is charged entirely at City expense. He estimates that as much as $16,000 of taxpayers money has been spent on these meetings since 2004 for food, rental facilities, and staff time in preparing for the meetings.

    Does that change the way you think about it? or not?

  3. Give it a rest already. You have already griped and moaned about this issue with Narvaiz and religion. If this column is going to constantly be about Narvaiz and religion then I will freely think to not read it in the future.

  4. This column was not about Narvaiz directly. I merely used my earlier column about her to try to explain how one can focus on relevant facts, rather than bring up red herrings. I will focus again on Narvaiz’ theocratic orientation. If you don’t want to know more about that, that is your choice, of course. I don’t want the government I pay for to promote someone’s religion. The City Council can put a stop to public money being used in this way, but so far no one on the council has had the courage to confront her about it, or confront their own complicity in allowing this to continue for four years. In the future, I will write about many other issues. This is a timely one right now.

  5. Based on what you said above, it sounds to me like you to plan to use your column as a platfor to force the city to stop the “promotion of someone’s religion”. That is fine and dandy but come on, we have heard it already. If you really want to do something about it, seeing as how you are a lawyer, why don’t you file a law suit. It will get old REAL quick having it in your column all the time. How about some other free thinking!

  6. BTW, what makes it more timely now than any other time? Just because you now have your own soapbox??

  7. Justadog, in all seriousness, how would you respond if the Mayor was meeting monthly behind closed doors with Muslims? Would you defend her in the same way?

  8. If the muslims were part of the group and it was all religious community leaders then I would have no problem with it. Just because they are religious leaders does not mean the mayor is holding religious meetings behind closed doors with public money. The pastors of the churches in town are a pretty big influence over their congregations and I see this as a great way to reach out to them and thus the community. She is not meeting with just protestants or just catholics, she is meeting with any and ALL religious leaders of the community. I really see it as no difference than meeting with community business leaders behind closed doors.

    Now if they are plotting a way to make all citizens of SM become religious then I CERTAINLY see a problem.

  9. Are we certain these meetings were “behind closed doors”? My understanding is they were not limited to just the clergy. That seems to be a critical point. Who was invited and who attended? Not that I have a problem with the meetings either way. I think to be an effective leader you have to work every avenue of communication available to you. Society operates in the margins of the “letter of the law” and the “intent of the law” on almost every front. I happen to believe that a religious society is a more civil society and I’m an athiest. As long as there isn’t one “true” religion promoted by the government.

  10. As I believe I stated in my original column about these meetings, they were open only to invited clergy and religious leaders and were not authorized by either the City Council, the City Charter, or ordinance. They were solely the Mayor’s unauthorized project paid for with the taxpayers’ money.

    I know that some people don’t care about these government and religion issues. There are a lot of topics I don’t have much interest in. The solution in both cases is to ignore topics that are not of interest. Eventually, I’m sure I will write about topics that are of interest to nearly every reader. My next two columns expand further on religion and the San Marcos City Council. After that, I’ll be writing about a local life and death matter, and a voting equipment problem. Then, we’ll see what develops.

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