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April 6th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: When city promotes religion, many are left out

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

It was a surprise to say the least. The San Marcos City Council meeting was opened on March 31st (actually it was the 5th item on the agenda) by the invocation given by Mullah Roberts:

“Glory to You, O Allah, and Yours is the praise. And blessed is Your Name, and exalted is Your Majesty. And there is no deity to be worshipped but You. I seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the accursed. He is the Living One; there is no god but Him. Pray to Him, then, and worship none besides Him. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.

“Oh Allah! If in Your knowledge, the matters before the city council this evening are good for our religion, our livelihoods and our affairs, immediate and in the future, then ordain it for us, make it easy for us, and bless it for us. And if in Your knowledge, the matters before the city council this evening are bad for our religion, our livelihoods and our affairs, immediate and in the future, then turn it away from us, and turn us away from them. And ordain for us the good wherever it may be, and make us content with it. Amen.”

“Oh Allah! the city council seeks Your guidance by virtue of Your knowledge, and it seeks ability by virtue of Your power, and I ask You of Your great bounty to grant this to them. You have power; we have none. And You know; we know not. You are the Knower of hidden things.

After that, the meeting was the essence of goodness. Apparently, every decision that needed to be made was deemed good, at least for the development community, because as usual, whatever any business or realtor asked for was approved.

Well, it didn’t happen exactly this way on March 31st. The invocation was given by Pastor Robert Smith of the PowerHouse Christian Center as follows:

“Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior:

Father God, we thank and praise you for all that you are doing in our lives, Father;

Father, we praise you for this group of people gathered together in one mind and one accord to make this city the best place in the world, Father;

We praise you and glorify you for all those who diligently serve;

And we give you praise, honor, and glory for the opportunity that you have given.

Right now Father, we ask your blessings upon this meeting, Father God, where everything can be done decently and (in order).

And all God’s children said ‘Amen’.”

As you will note, it was not Allah’s name that was invoked, but that of “Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.” I suppose members of the city council haven’t given much thought to the fact that there are Jews living in San Marcos, along with Buddhists, Bahá’is, Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, nonbelievers, Muslims, and New Age followers, none of whom are bound by the religious dogma that Jesus Christ is their savior.

According to Sperling’s, a data analysis service operating since 1985, fewer than 44 percent of those living in San Marcos are religious, that is, affiliated with a religion. If you go to a city council meeting or tune in to meetings on cable television, you might get a different impression. Each meeting since shortly after Susan Narvaiz became mayor includes an invocation that is decidedly Christian, especially of the pentecostal and evangelical variety. Every city council prayer from last September through February 2009 has included an invocation of Jesus Christ in some form or fashion. The March 31st prayer was typical.

I care about this for two reasons: those with religious views different from those promoted by the prayer tend to feel left out, even ostracized, and the practice of a governmental body sponsoring sectarian prayer has been ruled unconstitutional by numerous courts. For a lengthier analysis, please see my letter to the mayor and city council members here. For anyone unfamiliar with the term sectarian, which includes some city council members, sectarian means “adhering or confined to the dogmatic limits of a sect.” Sect means “a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination.”

I wrote city officials about these problems on March 18. To date, no one on the city council has bothered to respond to my letter, though I initiated conversation on the subject with two council members. This lack of response leads me to conclude that none of these officials plan to remedy their unconstitutional practice (although one city council member indicated he is concerned about it). They seem to believe that because they are elected officials, they are above the Constitution. They believe that they have the right to have the city government support the one religion to which they all claim allegiance. And their city attorney apparently agrees.

They reject our Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on this issue and the specific holdings of several other federal courts that follow that jurisprudence, including a 1989 federal Court of Appeals decision that found that nothing can “legitimate practices that demonstrate the government’s allegiance to a particular sect or creed.” And they ignore the further holding in that case, that “not even the ‘unique history’ of legislative prayer, can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.”

They reject also a 2004 federal Court of Appeals decision that held that “any sectarian invocations of deities in legislative prayer are demonstrative of affiliating the government with a particular sect or creed and/or advancing a particular faith or belief.” The court went on to say that any other conclusion “would be plainly contrary to ‘[t]he clearest command of the Establishment Clause … that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’”

And so, as the San Marcos City Council goes merrily on its way promoting Christianity at all of its meetings, it arrogantly assumes that no one will challenge them in court about their unconstitutional religious practices. And the council seems unconcerned, perhaps because it will be the taxpayers – you and me – who will foot the bill for defending their unconscionable behavior.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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6 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: When city promotes religion, many are left out

  1. At the risk of seeming reactionary, I won’t even wait for prompting to say I am concerned about the direction this is taking and regard it as an academic question that is a distraction from bread-and-butter municipal issues. At the same time, I’ve never been afraid of ideas and opinions and Mr Hankins is entitled to his even if I disagree vehemently (and I do).

  2. I agree 100% that there should be no officially-sponsored prayer at a city council meeting. As a non-believer, I find it offensive to be subjected to prayer at any governmental meeting. If the participants feel the need for a prayer, they can most certainly say one silently to themselves, and not subject the rest of us to listening, and worse, being included against our will by our mere presence. Somehow that always feels like acquiescence. The city council should stop the practice immediately. This is what separation of church and state is all about.

  3. Maybe the city attorney advised them not to reply to your letter. Their response could be used in a court of law, no doubt. But I imagine an open records requests wouldn’t apply to the attorney-client privilege, so I guess we will never know.

    Everyone knows the arguments about separation of church and state. And how it is regularly ignored. But if you are a True Believer, and you are using prayer and your religion for political means, then that is really scary. We can never know the truth, and hence we should not judge, but the people up there on the dais know in their heart of hearts what is the truth abut their motivation. And a True Believer knows that they will ultimately be judged for that behavior.

    I think that is good enough for me.

  4. I don’t know about vehemently disagreeing. It would be nice, IMHO, to get some representatives from different faiths to lead the prayer and it might be nice to have a moment of silence, instead of the prayer once in awhile, which ought to be acceptable to all denominations and to non-believers.

    At the end of the day, my votes go to the individuals who can get done the things I see that need to be done. Their faith does not particularly sway me one way or the other.

  5. I bet if that Muslim prayer above was said during the council meeting, certain people in San Marcos would be upset.

  6. Not me. I’d be thrilled. I’d love to see San Marcos take a more progressive stance on a number of issues.

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