The San Marcos City Council is taking up its policy regarding invocations at its meetings Tuesday night.
The council, particularly Mayor Susan Narvaiz, has come under fire in the last several months for opening meetings with sectarian prayers. Among the most vocal opponents of the practice is former City Attorney Lamar Hankins.
Last month, Narvaiz and councilmembers received a letter complaining of the practice, dated June 15, from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas.
The letter said AU and the ACLU viewed video of every city council meeting between September 2008 and May 2009 from the city’s website. Of the 13 meetings in which prayer was included in the on-line video, according to the two groups, every prayer except one either began or ended with an invocation of the name of Jesus Christ.
“We write to inform you that sectarian prayers at City Council meetings are unconstitutional,” AU and the ACLU said in their joint letter.
The council will take legal advise concerning “law applicable to legislative prayer” in executive session Tuesday night before addressing the matter in open session.
Pastor Robin Steele of PromiseLand Church in San Marcos has alerted other local religious leaders that the question will be under discussion by the city council Tuesday night.
In an email to local clergy and others, Steele advises that, “If you are interested in this matter, then now is the time to act and let your voice be heard. You can speak at the council meeting if you go to city hall and get your name on the list. Simply showing up or emailing the council will work also.”
In their letter to councilmembers, AU and the ACLU said the United States Supreme Court has ruled prayers opening legislative sessions to be constitutionally permissible if and only if they don’t use language or symbols specific to one religion. AU and the ACLU cited a 1983 decision, Marsh v. Chambers and a 1989 decision, County of Allegheny v. ACLU, as upholding legislative prayer that “removed all references to Christ.”
AU and ACLU, in their letter, also cited eight cases in which state and federal courts struck down sectarian prayer before legislatures and other representative public entities.
However, AU and the ACLU also said that even non-sectarian prayer won’t represent the traditions of non-Judeo-Christian believers or those who practice no religion.
“Because the San Marcos CIty Council is a representative body for all residents — Christians, Jews, nonbelievers, and others — we urge you to consider ceasing the prayers altogether in order to make all feel equally welcome at Council meetings,” the letter said. “If, however, you decide to continue your practice of opening meetings with prayer, we ask that you take steps to ensure that the prayers are nonsectarian, as the law requires.”
The letter closes by requesting that the city advise AU and the ACLU of its intentions on or before July 15. The letter is signed by Ian Smith, Staff Attorney for AU, and by two attorneys for the ACLU Foundation of Texas.
In other action at Tuesday night’s San Marcos City Council meeting, it is expected that the council will consider providing an interest-free loan of $5 million to a group hoping to re-develop the largely vacant Springtown Center with an Alamo Draft House as an anchor tenant.
The council also is likely to approve an adjustment in city policy for granting variances to persons wishing for additional watering options during drought, and it is likely to approve the appointment of Les Stephens as the new city fire chief.Email | Print