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July 13th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: The Evangelical Church of Jesus Christ of the San Marcos City Council

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

Until I listened to the many Christians, particularly Christian pastors, speak during the public comment session at the July 7 San Marcos City Council meeting about the need for city council invocations, I was not aware how insecure our local Christians are. One reporter wrote that the comment period took on the air of a “church revival.”  In our system, it is not the purpose of government to sponsor religious revival meetings.

Based on the speakers’ explanations about why we must have invocations before city council meetings in San Marcos, I learned several things. Their God is so powerless that unless He is prayed to at the start of meetings, the meetings will not go well because He can’t intervene on His own.

It seemed, from the comments I heard, that the city council is incapable of making good and wise decisions unless they begin with prayer to the Christian God. Neither Zarathustra, nor Thor, nor Zeus, nor Allah, nor Krishna, nor any other god will do. Only prayers to the Christian God will cause the city council to function properly. Some speakers believe that until prayers started four years ago, the council did not work very well. Only by invoking the name of Jesus have we come to have such good government.

I also learned that their God is not omnipresent. One speaker said that unless God’s name is spoken and He is invited to the meeting, He will not be there. He can’t or won’t appear without a spoken invitation. And this is the God that I was taught knew everything. He knew when a sparrow fell to the ground. Apparently, He won’t pay any attention to the city council unless they pray to Him at the beginning of each meeting. I note that the council regularly waits until after their Executive Sessions to offer their prayers. I suppose they don’t need God’s attention for  those important discussions.

I learned, too, that their God is so weak that He requires the local city government’s support. If He is not acknowledged by the city council at the beginning of each meeting, He will not be as powerful as his followers believe Him to be. Their religion, it seems, cannot prosper without having the support of the city council for their God.

One of the oddest things I learned is that their God always answers prayer. The city council will always make the wisest decisions, we were told, because one of their ministers prays for God’s guidance at the beginning of each meeting, assuring that whatever decisions are made by the city council will be the correct decisions. I haven’t gone back to check, but I’m reasonably sure that the reason the city council let the juvenile curfew ordinance expire two years ago, a mistake they have admitted, must have been because they forgot to pray at the beginning of that meeting. If they truly have the support of God, I haven’t been able to explain how the city council can make a decision at one meeting and then reverse itself at the next meeting, which happened with the ordinance which allows make-up watering days. Perhaps their God is fickle.

Another feeling I got from the pro-prayer speakers is that they are fearful that if the city council will not promote their religion through Christian invocations, then their religions might not prosper. It seemed that these speakers need government to promote their religion. They need the government’s approval of their religion for it to have importance and status. Without government support, their religion would be diminished.

I did note that virtually all of the pro-prayer speakers appeared to be Evangelicals. None of the mainline protestant denominations seemed to be represented among the speakers. This may be because the San Marcos Ministerial Association, a group dominated by Evangelicals, organized the pro-invocation speakathon by actively encouraging its members and others who visit their website to show up and argue for city council prayer.

An attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Texas, Fleming Terrell, also spoke during the comment period. She did not push her own religious views on the council. Instead, she discussed how the courts have interpreted the Constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion. She pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that legislative prayers are constitutionally permissible only if they do not use language or symbols specific to one religion. Virtually all of the prayers before the San Marcos City Council have invoked the name of Jesus Christ, a figure associated only with Christianity. Such sectarian prayers have been forbidden by numerous federal courts of appeal in the past decade.

The city council decided in executive session, where it sought the legal advice of their city attorney about invocations, to give direction to staff to broaden the process through which those who give the invocations are chosen. Heretofore, the San Marcos Ministerial Association recruited people from among its membership to offer the city council prayers. In an effort to expand the religious perspectives represented in the invocations, the city clerk will be assigned the responsibility to recruite people from all religious segments of the community. This is an effort to have some invocations given by non-Christians. While this strategy may move the city council’s practice away from having only Christian prayers, it would do nothing to diminish the sectarian nature of the prayers that are given.

The city council does not appear to be interested in fully complying with federal court jurisprudence in this area. Council members seem to believe that by having an occasional Jew, or Muslim, or Wiccan give the invocation, they can avoid a constitutional confrontation. However, if the Christian ministers who have been doing most of the praying for the last few years continue to pray in the name of Jesus Christ or their Lord, they will continue to dishonor the constitutional requirement that all prayers be non-sectarian.

Clearly, the city council, by their direction to staff to change the system for selecting those giving invocations, is now admitting that their invocation practices have violated the Constitution, but the council does not intend to fully respect that founding document, hoping that half a loaf will satisfy those hungry for complete constitutional fealty. It is not clear why their God allowed them to make this constitutional mistake for four years.

If anyone doubts the purpose of the invocations has been to involve the city council with religion, specifically one brand of Christian religion, look at the words of Pastor Paul E. Buntyn, president of the San Marcos Ministerial Alliance, which were read by former San Marcos council member Earl Mosely at the July 7 meeting:

“The scripture commands us to ‘pray for those who have authority over us’” and the “‘prayers of the righteous availeth much.’…We believe that opening our meetings with prayer has contributed to the collaborative and collective wisdom of city council leadership and governance.”

Pastor Buntyn uses the Bible, the guiding document of his religion, to explain why he and other Christians should give invocations at city council meetings. His religion, he explains, commands him to pray at city council meetings. Of course, the verses he quoted say nothing about praying in public before government meetings. He can “pray for those who have authority over us” all day long wherever he is and he does not need the government’s imprimatur to do so. This is not a disagreement about prayer, which all are free to do any time they wish. It is a disagreement about the government’s role in promoting sectarian public prayer at official government functions.

The invocations have fulfilled what Pastor Buntyn perceives as a biblical prescription, and the city council obliges him by promoting his religious beliefs. The opportunity afforded by the city council gives Pastor Buntyn and many other Christian ministers the opportunity to engage in public piety while promoting their religions through the local government. And I thought their God did not like self-righteousness.

Mayor Narvaiz said of the comment period that, “People get angry when you start taking their rights away.”  However, the “rights” Mayor Narvaiz refers to do not exist. According to the Constitution, no one has a right to use the government to promote their religions or their religious views. I’m not sure what constitution Mayor Narvaiz has sworn to uphold.

The mayor also explained that she has a religious belief that city council prayer serves a higher purpose. That purpose appears to be to have the local government promote her religion, conduct specifically proscribed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of the Constitution.

Any time city council members take sides about religious issues, they have overstepped their positions as elected government officials. Under our Constitution, they should neither promote nor inhibit religious practice in those official positions. Instead, they have placed their loyalty to their religion ahead of their duty to the Constitution.  They are willing to adhere to the principles of our free and democratic society only as long as those principles support their religion. They cannot abide neutrality toward religion as the Constitution directs.

No matter the sincerity of city council members’ direction to staff to be more inclusive, they will end up promoting Christianity because, apparently, they are unwilling to insist that invocations at their meetings be free of sectarian language and symbols.

This city council has founded, wittingly or unwittingly, the Evangelical Church of Jesus Christ of the San Marcos City Council. All that is left to do is change the city charter to reflect our Christian Evangelical theocracy.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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12 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: The Evangelical Church of Jesus Christ of the San Marcos City Council

  1. Another interesting piece, but as with some of the other articles on this subject, it is more inflammatory than what I would have said. Of course, that is one of the great things about America: we’re all free to have different views.

    Personally, I think the most telling comment was from the gentleman who said that if other religions felt left out, they could run a candidate from their faith “on that platform and see how far they get.”

    To me, this drove home the feeling of inequality that some people in these groups must feel *and* really gave me pause to wonder about the real reason this practice is in place.

    Good point about having the executive session before the invocation.

  2. Well said, Lamar. The city council would do well to remember the principles by which they were elected, and that the only “higher power” they serve is the will of the people.

    Mayor Narvaiz can pray on her own dime, but when she’s at work, she’s working for the people of the city and no one else.

  3. Such a scathing article – how much mockery and ridicule can you put in one article? Apparently a lot.

    Am I too far off in thinking that this is just another closed-minded God-hater lashing out at believers and then call them closed minded? I wasn’t at the meeting, so I can’t be sure. But this is at least how this article reads.

    If you wanted to convince someone on the principals, then you should have just stuck with the principals, and you might have actually had me convinced! And correctly quoted the first amendment, for that matter.

    http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Am1
    “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.”

    Somehow the “An establishment of religion” has been re-interpreted in our times to mean that any expression of religion is the establishment of the “institution of” religion, which is obviously not the intention or meaning of the amendment, nor a true assertion. The amendment is merely saying that the government shall not rule on the establishing of and meeting of a particular religion. Generally the reinterpretation necessarily forces the breaking of the 2nd clause (prohibiting the free exercise thereof) because it forces people to go find a closet to pray – you can no longer pray out loud where you might be heard in public.

  4. I agree that there was quite a bit of mockery and ridicule in the article, which does not really help anything.

    At the same time, you must surely realize that praying out loud in public and stopping a public meeting to lead the attendees of that meeting in a prayer is far from the same thing.

  5. Whatever I may be, I have never characterized myself as a “God-hater” and don’t believe that I am one. What I have done is try to explain contradictions in the confusing theologies expressed by many of the speakers. It is not at all clear to me just who this God is that they profess to pray to.

  6. Mr. Hankins’ arguments adduces the actual behavior of the Mayor, the City Council, and the Evangelical pastors’ who speak at public meetings. He reaches reasoned conclusions about the meaning, intentions, and political import of that behavior. This is not to mock. On the contrary, The Mayor, et. al. are hoist by their own petard.

    In logic, Mr. Hankins could easily be refuted by showing he has his facts wrong. It is obvious to me, however, that this cannot be done. Indeed, none of the interlocutors so far have shown how Mr. Hankins has his facts wrong, and/or misinterpreted them. Mr. Baker, for one, is reduced to mere special pleading.

  7. Mr. Baker is the only one here who has disagreed with Lamar, so I am not sure who else you are looking to, to show his facts to be wrong.

  8. At the same time, you must surely realize that praying out loud in public and stopping a public meeting to lead the attendees of that meeting in a prayer is far from the same thing.

    Definitely, agreed.

    To reiterate, I was not there, and I don’t exactly know the nature of how this played out at that meeting.

    That aside, I think part of the principal challenge in general is that a governing body isn’t to vote or legislate on things of faith as far as it concerns itself, and yet practically speaking meetings take place based upon rules either mutually agreed upon by a majority or handed down by superiors.

    To say it another way, there is sometimes a felt need to steer things to a certain degree based on our convictions, rightfully so. In the case of things of faith, it gets complicated because when folks disagree, it becomes a first amendment issue.

  9. Here is editorial on the same issue by a newspaper in Tracey, CA:

    Our Voice: Sanctioned prayer not a part of council’s duty
    The Editorial Board
    Tracy Press
    July 10, 2009

    For 40 years, the city of Tracy has opened its council meetings with bowed heads and Christian prayer, and most of the time, the audience members have been willing participants. But the red flag has gone up at least three times now, and it’s time for a change.

    Back in the mid-1990s, a Tracy Press reporter complained about the exclusive nature of the public meetings she was required to cover. As a member of the audience, she was asked to pray to Jesus Christ, which didn’t mesh with her beliefs as a Jewish woman. Her concerns were dismissed.

    Then two years ago, the city attorney suggested that our City Council avoid litigation by barring ministers from making specific religious references during the invocation. But the majority on the council opted to ignore that counsel and take a “wait and see if they sue us” stance.

    Now, surprise, surprise, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has threatened a lawsuit over the city-sanctioned public prayer, and the issue has resurfaced. The nonprofit group said it has reviewed invocations at council meetings between 2006 and 2009 and found it clear that these prayers are “rarely, if ever, nondenominational.”

    We’ve never thought that prayer should be part of the official council proceedings in our town, and we’ve editorialized against the council’s refusal to uphold the constitutional principle of a separation of church and state.

    Tracy’s prayer policy may be inclusive in its intentions, but it’s exclusive in its practice of rotating only those religious leaders (all Christian, like the council) who have come forth to offer invocations. It makes political outsiders of those constituents who don’t share religious beliefs.

    Is it intimidating for a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Hindu to speak to the council after enduring a Christian prayer? Is an atheist or agnostic at a disadvantage with an all-Christian council if he refuses to fold his hands during the invocation?

    The answer shouldn’t be yes for even one member of our community.

    That’s why we implore the council to respect all religions, as well as those without religions, by offering a moment of silence and reflection at the beginning of its meetings — instead of sanctioned public prayer.

  10. Lamar, I agree with you 100%. You continue to provide a great service to our community. Thank you.
    JR

  11. Thank you, Lamar, for taking an unpopular position in San Marcos. You make good logical points. The separation of church and state is essential to our respect for others with very different beliefs, and I appreciate your being an advocate for this position.

  12. Our new higher power is Lamar! Well, right next to Tic Tac, the family goddess cat and then there’s always The Great Spaghetti Monster. At any rate, you are in good company.

    On a serious note, thank you thank you thank you!

    My mother-in-law sent a link to your journal and at first I thought it was San Marcos, CA since well, gee, we don’t live in New Braunfels anymore, we live in liberal San Marcos, TX, but to my chagrin I discovered it twas the Texas variety. I have been sleep walking through the local politics it seems. I didn’t vote for Susan but neither did I know of her extra religious activities, bless her heart.

    Did I say thank you for being our voice, for speaking our mind, for being the reason we love human beings?

    Thank you,

    The GRLs (Gaby, Roxy, Lynny Moore)

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