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

July 10th, 2009
San Marcos Council to continue prayers

The audience at Tuesday night’s San Marcos City Council meeting prayed during the invocation. Photos by Andy Sevilla.

By ANDY SEVILLA
Associate Editor

The San Marcos City Council will continue opening council meetings with prayer after a unanimous decision Tuesday night confirmed the council’s conviction to continue the practice.

However, the council directed staff to draft a prayer policy with guidelines specifying that prayer leaders neither advance nor disparage any specific faith. Prayers leaders also would be instructed to not proselytize.

In addition, the guidelines would call for prayer givers to represent the variety of faiths practiced in San Marcos.

The council directed City Clerk Sherry Mashburn to be responsible for establishing a rotation to include all faiths.

A standing-room only audience Tuesday night witnessed more than an hour of comments from San Marcos citizens outraged that the city council could end invocations at its meetings. In what seemed like a church revival, several citizens praised the mayor and council for asking for “guidance from God” before engaging in city business.

“Our community wanted us to know they appreciate and want us to continue our process of invocation,” Narvaiz said. “People get angry when you start taking their rights away.”

Last month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas jointly wrote a letter to city councilmembers calling for an end to sectarian prayer at San Marcos council meetings.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that prayers at the openings of legislative sessions are constitutionally permissible if, but only if, they do not use language or symbols specific to one religion,” the letter said. “We write to inform you that sectarian prayers at City Council meetings are unconstitutional.”

The organizations maintain in the letter that sectarian prayer prevailed at the majority of San Marcos council meetings during a nine-month period ending in May.

“We have viewed on your website every City Council meeting held between September 2008 and May 2009,” stated the letter. “Of the thirteen meetings where the prayer was included in the on-line video, only one featured non-sectarian prayer. Every other prayer either began or ended with an invocation of the name of Jesus Christ.”

Before making a decision in favor of prayer at city council meetings, the council took the matter up in executive session, where City Attorney Michael Cosentino offered legal advice. Cosentino would not comment on his recommendation citing “attorney-client privilege.”

Said San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz, “I think it’s our right (to pray at government meetings). It’s our history. If they can do it in Washington, we can do it in San Marcos. I have a belief that it serves a higher purpose to do so.”

The First Amendment in the United States Constitution states, in its entirety, that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The AU and ACLU argue that the exercise of specific religion at government meetings suggests an establishment of such a religion. However, those in favor of sectarian prayer at public meetings say a ban on invocation prohibits the free exercise of religion.

“State and Federal courts have struck down sectarian prayers before legislatures and other representative public bodies,” said the AU and ACLU letter, which added that numerous court cases have determined that “frequent references to Jesus Christ impermissibly promoted one religion over all others,” and that, “allowing prayers that frequently invoked Jesus afforded special, privileged status to Christianity.”

The San Marcos Ministerial Alliance (SMAA) presented its position to the city council in a letter written by Pastor Paul E. Buntyn, president of SMAA, who was unable to attend the meeting. Former San Marcos Councilmember Earl Mosely read Buntyn’s letter aloud.

“The scripture commands us to ‘pray for those who have authority over us,’ and that the ‘prayers of the righteous availeth much,'” Moseley read. “Even though you, as city councilmembers, do not always agree, and the citizens and residents of San Marcos don’t always agree with every ordinance and the decisions made from this august body, we believe in your collective wisdom to lead our city. To that extent, we believe that opening our meetings with prayer has contributed to the collaborative and collective wisdom of city council leadership and governance.”

The SMAA was established in 1984. Its website states that it is “a group of Christian ministers in San Marcos, Texas that meets for fellowship and unity.”

Narvaiz said requests have been openly made to people of all faiths to join the invocation rotation, adding that efforts will continue for outreach. Narvaiz said dialogue with a rabbi from Austin, a Jewish chief religious official, has begun, and she is hopeful that he, too, will join the rotation.

The San Marcos City Council has in the past included invocations in the agendas, a practice that stopped, but was revived by Narvaiz, who said a 6-1 vote brought back the practice.

Narvaiz said that SMAA was previously in charge of the rotation for invocations at city council meetings, but that responsibility will now be put on Mashburn.

American Civil Liberties Union of Texas attorney Fleming Terrell, left, and former San Marcos Councilmember Earl Mosely, right, addressed the city council.

San Marcos City Councilmembers and staff prayed Tuesday night during the invocation.

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0 thoughts on “San Marcos Council to continue prayers

  1. Mayor Narvaiz said, “I have a belief that it serves a higher purpose to [pray]” and believes that it is her right to pray at a government function.

    Strange, because I had always considered the “higher purpose” of government to be serving the people. I believe that the core right of an elected official is to assist in executing the will of their constituents, within the confines of the law.

    Mayor Narvaiz certainly has the right to pray if she so chooses; just not on the community’s dime.

    Also, if Mr. Buntyn truly believes that “prayer has contributed to the collaborative and collective wisdom of city council leadership”, maybe they should try opening each session with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights instead. I’d hazard those documents would be far more effective in imparting wisdom.

    Bringing more and different types of prayer into city council meetings is *missing the point*. Prayer doesn’t belong in government, period. These people were elected by the public to govern, so I recommend they get to governing.

  2. Exactly. It is separation of church and state, not separation of the Catholic (or Methodist, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim… or the Invisible Pink Unicorn) church and state. All of them. If religion helps guide someone and live a better life, then they should pursue that knowledge and path, but it does not belong in government. It is a private and personal matter. Both government and religion are cheapened by meddling in the other’s affairs.

  3. They do this same thing at the Commissioners Court meetings.

    There is a preacher there every week and if you are not into organized Christian prayer, you feel a bit left out.

    Where does the Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn meet?

    Sounds promising.

  4. I dont understand what the hell the big deal is. Praying before legislative meetings has been a part of our everyday life, so what’s the problem with doing it before San Marcos council meetings? Look, as long as a conscious effort is done to keep sectarian prayers out, and include all faiths, then by all means pray. Everyone knows our council needs it!! Not too long ago we had a Cherokee lady heading the prayer – perhaps we need more than just that one instance, but it’s a start. Maybe that rabbi being contacted can make a stop soon, and then perhaps we can get someone in the muslim faith to come over too, and then start back over with the Catholic priests and then baptist, methodist, so forth and so on.
    Prayer in government is just something that we have to tolerate. As long as it is very inclusive, then by all means continue forth and be merry.
    In San Marcos, it is a little more difficult (but not impossible) to get faiths, other than Christianity, to come forth, but it can be done. Perhaps the ACLU, if they truly are concerned, can help put the word out that we need representatives of all faiths to join the rotation in San Marcos.

  5. Allen, if you’re being serious, then contact the City Clerk and put in your request. I dont know what the process of doing so encompasses, but perhaps you can enlighten us all.

  6. Thank you to those who have led me to the FSM.

    I was woefully ignorant of his Noodly Appendage, but now have seen the light.

    RAmen

  7. We have to face reality here, most of the population in San Marcos is overwhelmingly convenient “Christian.” (By convenient christian I mean, I will judge you when you dont behave accordingly to my belief, but when I stray from it, you better not say anything, point fingers, or judge.) At any rate, with “Christians” dominating the population, it is expected Christian prayers will dominate the council meetings. There has been a Native American Prayer, and Susan narvaiz said a rabbi might soon provide the invocation.
    Prayer in legislative meetings is a “tolerable act,” if you dont like, hey youre entitled to not liking it. So if you do not like it because you are not Christian, then have some of your religious leaders join the rotation. If you do not like it because the prayers cheapen our city council and the religion, then just sit back and enjoy. Our council meetings are already cheapened by their ludicrous decisions. And if the religion is being cheapened, in your opinion, then just be glad it isnt yours.

  8. I don’t understand where the confusion is: it’s against the constitution, isn’t it? So if you want to change it, modify the constitution, but until it’s changed, there are no exceptions.

  9. It is not unconstitutional to prey, lol, pray before government meetings. What is unconstitutional, as set forth in Marsh v Chambers, is sectarian prayers. Something our council may be guilty of. I think that’s why they’re taking a new tactic and are now interested in recruiting other faiths aside from the ones represented in the San Marcos Ministerial Alliance. Afterall, the Ministerial Alliance was the group in charge of the rotation, so what else can we expect!? Now, the city clerk is in charge, so there will hopefully be changes. At least that’s what we can hope.

  10. Macon, Paul is correct. As odd as it sounds, it only becomes unconstitutional when a specific faith is called out above others.

    What I find hilarious is that they’re trying to get around the law by paying lip service to other religions, but evangelicals of their stripe tend to believe that *any* nod to another religion is cause for hellfire and damnation.

    I guess they’re willing to put aside their judgmental nature in order to get a political foot in the door.

  11. I wonder. I wonder if anyone will read this more than two weeks after the initial posting. I wonder what I would have said had I been here in San Marcos for the City Council meeting instead of being away on vacation.

    I am grateful for the decision to continue opening meetings of the Council with prayer. But I wonder. I wonder what we want prayer to do, or not to do at a public meeting.

    I am quite aware that public prayer is used (and abused) by some as a means for imposing one’s own theological views or political biases onto others. I wonder if God feels as helpless as we do when that happens, or if God is able to do something even with prayers like that.

    For others, however, public prayer can be a sincere means of invoking their diety to influence the council for good, or even to intervene should the council go down some false path. I wonder if prayer persuades that Higher Power, or Higher Consciousness, or Life Force, by whatever name it is called, to be more interested, or to be more favorable, or to work any harder than it already is. I wonder how much that One waits for our acknowledgement or consent before it gets involved. I wonder if it goes by any rules that we can hold it to, or if it involves itself in our affairs as it chooses.

    For some of us, prayer is simply our own opening, our surrendering, to the qualities of compassion, of wisdom, of courage, of vision that we all recognize as the qualities of our dieties. I wonder if the One to whom we pray is better able to share those qualities with us when we are open to them. I wonder how concerned that One is with the particular outcome of each agenda item compared to how involved it is in using our struggles to slowly transform us into wise, compassionate, brave, and visionary beings.

    I wonder if prayer works sometimes one way, and sometimes another; if there is as much mystery as there is power to prayer.

    I wonder. I’m sorry for those who feel manipulated by the prayer of others, and, as a local clergy, I apologize on behalf of those who do indeed use prayer manipulatively.

    But I’m grateful that the Council decided to contiune opening their meetings with a prayer. I wonder what we want public prayer to do, or not to do, but I hope that we will be blessed by the sincere and honest prayers of many faiths and religions. My prayer is that we all approach the idea and the practice of prayer as a great mystery that likely changes us who pray more than it changes the God we pray to, and that those who dare to address that Mystery in public might do so with awareness and respect for all its manifestations and experiences represented by those present.

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