The audience at Tuesday night’s San Marcos City Council meeting prayed during the invocation. Photos by Andy Sevilla.
By ANDY SEVILLA
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.Email | Print