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November 14th, 2012
Freethought San Marcos: No one wins when government forces religion on everyone

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Those who see no harm in beginning a meeting of a city council, school board, or commissioners court with prayer owe it to the Constitution to take a few minutes and consider the perspective that the First Amendment’s prohibition against an establishment of religion means that the government is not allowed to force any religion – or religion itself – on its citizens.

For the moment, I will put aside the issue of sectarian versus nonsectarian prayer and focus on any prayer, whatever its content. Put simply, prayer is communicating with God or gods. Prayer is an act of religious worship. It is the most universal form of religious practice that I know of. There should be no doubt that prayer is a religious practice:  people who are not religious or do not believe in the supernatural do not pray. Only religious people pray.

The prayer invocations regularly offered before meetings of government bodies are usually directed toward a deity, spirit, or amorphous supernatural being. They often express everyone’s reliance on the being and their desire to please said being. Usually they request guidance or help from the being and occasionally ask for special favors, such as rain or assistance for improving the performance of a favored athletic team.

When the government sponsors, promotes, or establishes prayer as a part of its activities, it is sponsoring, promoting, or establishing a religious practice, an integral part of religious worship. If any person wants to participate in the civic life of the community by attending, speaking at, or observing the meetings of elected officials who begin their meetings with prayer, that person must submit to a religious practice. If the Supreme Court has been clear about anything in this area of jurisprudence, it is that the government may not sponsor, promote, or establish religion or religious practices, although it has permitted prayer not identified with a particular religion (nonsectarian prayer), because it views such prayer an insignificant, if not irrelevant.

For most elected officials, it seems that having an invocation before a meeting of a government body means offering a prayer. But “invocation” need not be so narrowly construed. Merriam-Webster defines invocation in other ways:  “the act or process of petitioning for help or support” and “a calling upon for authority or justification.”  Neither of these definitions necessarily suggests that an invocation be addressed to a god.

An invocation can be addressed to the governing body (rather than to a deity), to remind its members of of their responsibility to serve the greater good; to respect the dignity of all citizens; to show no favoritism based on personal interest, race, religion, or party affiliation; to be open to the ideas of others; to use reason devoid of cant and  deceit; to display compassion when that is needed; to seek answers to our problems through the ingenuity of our people; and to honor other ideals inherent in our history. An invocation need not be an act of religious worship or practice.

When it comes to fashioning an invocation for a home-rule city like the City of San Marcos, its charter will provide specific responsibilities of the city council that should be carried out, the goals of the city, the proper behavior expected of city officials, and any general standard that should always be kept in mind, such as “devotion to the best interest of the City.”  There is no better way to help public officials always be aware of why they were elected than to regularly remind them of their proper role as found in their local constitution.

If an invocation is intended to set a tone for a meeting of our elected leaders, these suggestions seem to accomplish that purpose, and they do so without engaging in any religious practice or worship. If they express opinions about how the body or its citizens should act that the listener disagrees with, that listener should be able to get on the invocation list and offer a non-prayer invocation that he or she believes is more in keeping with our shared values and the purpose of the governing body.

Part and parcel of the prayer problem is limiting who may give invocations to clergy. Clergy are expected to pray. That is why they are invited to give the invocation. All of the official invocation policies that I have seen single out clergy to provide the invocations – clear evidence that the purpose of the invocation is to engage in the practice of religion.

Many of our elected representatives are religionists first and public officials second. It should be the other way around. Religionists want to use the government to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the population, ignoring the rights of all citizens to have the autonomy to make their own religious and moral decisions. This was the case with both the Hays County Commissioners Court and the San Marcos City Council. When Jim Powers began his tenure as Hays County Judge and Susan Narvaiz began her tenure as Mayor of San Marcos, both decided for their own religious reasons to have their respective governmental bodies begin using prayers to start their meetings. They used their public positions to have the government promote their private religious beliefs. For many decades, both bodies had functioned just fine without the prayerful invocations.

Having the government force religious positions on other people has always created great turmoil in society, and it has corrupted both the government and the religious groups involved. For these reasons, the drafters of the Constitution sought to keep government out of religion. They had seen what happened in England to religious liberty when the state and religion are intertwined, and they had witnessed the disorder, dissension, and destruction brought about in various colonies by an alliance between government and religion. James Madison was aware also of the example of Holland where religion and government were kept separate so that each person had full religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

Even the Texas Constitution, in spite of its frequently inappropriate religiosity (much of which has been invalidated by the Supreme Court as infringing on the guarantees and provisions of the US Constitution), provides that no one “shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship.”

This is precisely what religious prayers as invocations do to all the citizenry. They maintain a ministry without the consent of all those who want to participate in local government. They interfere with the right of conscience in matters of religion. They give preference to certain religious groups and subject those in attendance at meetings to religious worship.

Those who suggest that anyone who disagrees with the prayers can absent themselves from that part of the meeting have not thought fully about this suggestion. The way the San Marcos City Council functions, for instance, it is not possible to know when the invocation will be held. The Council often begins meetings with lengthy workshops, starts the business meeting by convening into executive session, delays the invocation until after other business is conducted, or waits until the clergy scheduled to give the invocation arrives at the meeting.

Should the Mayor announce in advance that a moment will be given for all those who don’t want to engage in prayer to leave the room?  Will that person’s seat be saved or taken by another during the person’s absence?  Avoiding the prayer requires leaving the building because the meeting is broadcast outside the council chambers for those who can’t find a seat or want to stay in the foyer. Who will tell those who have left the building when the prayer is over?  But the very suggestion that those not wanting to engage in a religious practice can leave the meeting is to acknowledge that the activity is religious activity, which should not be sponsored, promoted, or established by a government body under the Constitution.

I have never understood the mindset of public officials who believe that they have the right as elected officials to impose their religion and religious practices, or anyone’s religious practices, on the citizens by virtue of their public positions. The author, editor, political commentator, and blogger Andrew Sullivan is a devout and ardent Roman Catholic. In a colloquy with atheist author and neuroscientist Sam Harris in 2007, they addressed the question of how a person of such strong belief as Sullivan can resist inflicting his religious beliefs on others. His answer is relevant to elected officials who assume the right to do this very thing to us all.

Sullivan responded to the question posed: “You ask legitimately: how can I, convinced of this truth (about Christianity), resist imposing it on others? The answer is: humility and doubt. I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it. That’s why I am such a dogged defender of pluralism and secularism – because I believe secularism alone does justice to the profundity of the claims of religion. The attempt to force or even rig laws to encourage others to share my faith defeats the point of my faith – which is that it is both freely chosen and definitionally dealing with matters that cannot be subject to common consensus.”

If public officials believe that religious worship is important, perhaps they should meet in a conference room before the meeting and pray together with their chosen clergy. Then, filled with righteousness from their religious worship, they can enter the meeting room in the frame of mind of their choice, gavel the meeting to order, and get on with doing the people’s business, without subjecting the people to forced religious worship. In this way our elected officials can show respect for the pluralism of this society, the US Constitution, and the conscience of every citizen.

The Bill of Rights became a part of our Constitution over 220 years ago. It is time that all of the First Amendment of that Constitution was followed. No one has a constitutional right to use the government to sponsor, promote, or establish religion; but everyone has the constitutional right to be free from government sponsorship, promotion, or establishment of religion. It should not be too much to ask that this freedom be honored. That would be true religious liberty for all.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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20 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: No one wins when government forces religion on everyone

  1. I made it all the way to your second paragraph before I paused to behold the storm of compost.
    I believe what just came from behind your forehead and into your typing fingers was etched on a rock somewhere by a Neanderthal. You could have at least given the author credit. C’mon man!
    Re: There should be no doubt that prayer is a religious practice: people who are not religious or do not believe in the supernatural do not pray. Only religious people pray.
    I’ll believe you’ve never spoken with a combat veteran, anyone that arrived first-on-scene at a traffic fatality or anyone that survived the terrorist attacks on 9-11-01. I’ll believe you’ve never spoken to any of the military chaplains that served with our WWII, Korean War or Vietnam Vets. I’ll believe you haven’t talked with chaplains alongside our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since you like to recall history, fall back to the lifting-up of spiritual hope by those that lived on this land before us-and owned no Bible- the Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache, Comanche. These are the people that truly understand each letter of the word you repeatedly wrote [freedom].
    I believe ALL people own independent, spiritual expression and some are not religious. I believe a situational circumstance can launch these expressions- including setting a hopeful tone for harmony & thoughtfulness before a meeting or assembly.
    In America, we have no chains holding us to seats, no mandatory ear-plugs issued during meetings and no arrest warrants for disagreeing with how the tone of a meeting is established. But, for the time being, or until a bored gathering of civil rights attorneys make these consequences come into our lives- I believe it best to ignore irritation of how a meeting begins… and just go forward-in harmony.

  2. To Alan Cameron:

    I know that nothing I write will be considered by you because you are unwilling to reason through a proposition. But just to set the record straight, I want you to know that an uncle of mine was one of the first chaplains to serve in Vietnam, as was a friend who is a retired minister here in San Marcos.

    The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers maintains a list of Atheists in Foxholes. There are now over 200 people serving in the military on that list. Pat Tillman, one of our better known servicemen at the time of his death, was an atheist. Anyone who believes the shibboleth that there are no atheists in foxholes is simply denying reality.

    You are welcome to practice any religion you want (including those of Native Americans), but you are not free to compel me to practice it for any duration, whether for a minute or a lifetime.

  3. Lighten’ up – We’re In The MIX @ Freethought!
    You have the Column- I’ve got Thoughts.
    Here’s some of my reasoning.I’ve learned and understand how freely those that choose NOT to serve in uniform or take the oath to serve this great Country are seemingly the quickest to spout-off about foxholes and what they think might be inside them. Here’s a clear and distinct group of words that highlight what our volunteer military men and women recite and find compelling enough to protect our Nation:
    “I,_______, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States President and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

    *Don’t let that last part confuse you Mr. Hankins!

  4. The problem is that you seem to be equating “being in a room with someone who is praying” with “worship”.

    If someone next to you is praying and you’re simply listening along, that is not an act of worship. Worship is more than just speaking or listening to spoken words addressed to a deity. Worship is a mindset, an attitude, and an emotion. You as much as said it yourself – without faith, acts of worship are meaningless. So why do you constantly rail against them if they are meaningless to you?

    You claim “If any person wants to participate in the civic life of the community by attending, speaking at, or observing the meetings of elected officials who begin their meetings with prayer, that person must submit to a religious practice.” This is patently not true. You MAY be asked to remain respectfully quiet while those who choose to participate do so (in much the same way as you are expected to remain quiet during any other part of the meeting), but there is nothing at all forcing you to participate in any actual act of worship.

    No one can force worship on another person. Your opposition to public prayer isn’t so much about you having “worship forced upon you”, it’s really about your lack of respect and tolerance for the worshipful practices of others.

  5. Nope to some of you. Lamar has this one exactly right. I’m a Christian and I believe that a city meeting is not a place for city leaders to bring forth prayer.

  6. To Dano:

    I have many friends and family members who are devout members of various religions. I not only respect and tolerate their choices, I accept their choices. But that doesn’t mean I have to go to religious services with them. In your zeal to attack my character as intolerant, etc., you completely ignore my main point: the government has no business promoting religion – anyone’s religion.

    To Alan Cameron:

    The “so help me God” part of the military oath is not required to be said if the speaker has a personal or moral objection, as is true of all oaths administered by the United States government.

  7. Would so help me Allah be OK? How about so help me Satan? Buddah? Pick a deity other than the christian god, substitute at will. Some how I doubt most of you would be happy with that.

  8. LOL @ Lamar, using the old “I’m not a racist, I know lots of black people” argument.

    Winchester – if the person taking the oath believes in Allah, Buddha, Satan, whatever then I’m happier with them taking an oath to what they believe in than I would be to see them take an oath to something that’s meaningless to them. The more sacred the oath, the more likely you are to keep it.

  9. -Winchester: Well, that’s sort of the point of how ridiculous it is to have prayers in government meetings. Yes, if you say it’s okay for saying a prayer with God or Jesus in it and the rest of the people should just remain quiet and respectful, then when there is a prayer with Allah or the Goddess in it the rest of the people should just remain quiet and respectful. Someone is always getting excluded and subjected to religiosity they may not find acceptable or may make them embarrassed or uncomfortable.

    So, instead of having the football team go through 20 different banners representing a myriad of religions or having citizens go through 20 different types of prayers in governmental meetings at any one time, just respect the seperation of church and state in your invocations by leaving any religious bent out of it.

    This allows everyone to feel included and to be united under a community, city, state or country’s primary governmental purpose instead of a particular religious belief that is not shared by all.

  10. To Dano: You appear not to understand the concept of a false equivalence, which requires an understanding of logic. I hope you will continue to amuse yourself.

  11. How does state sponsored prayer violate the First Amendment? The First Amendment specifically states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”. Therefore, the First Amendment exclusively and specifically says three things about religion.
    1) It is the congress that is restricted.
    2) No national law shall be made that establishes religion.
    3) No national law shall be made that restricts people from practicing their religion.

    The supreme court and secularists have intentionally perverted the meaning of the First Amendment. These same people use the “living document” argument that the constitution says something that it doesn’t say. They use the this argument against school prayer, prayer in county court houses, etc., but it doesn’t reflect the true meaning of the written words of this legal and not “living document”.

    A County Judge or City Council promoting religion is not “Congress making a law”. How do you equate the two. Please enlighten me.

  12. Jim: The 14th amendment, check it out. And it was Alexander Hamilton – whom most alleged right wingers would be quite happy with today, I suspect – and the Federalists who began the whole living document thing. Don’t blame secularists like Thomas Jefferson (whom the same alleged right wingers typically quote even more ironically more often).

    And while I agree with Lamar on this issue – I’ll change my mind when the same people defending a Christian prayer don’t flip their lid when an Islamic or Hindu one opens their football game (HA, I would pay good $$$ to watch that!), as if that would ever happen – I am much more concerned with issues such as Monsanto taking over the food supply or Pearson taking over public education. As much as I get what you are trying to say, no one is going to die if the cheerleader reads a Christian prayer over the PA at homecoming, but it might just matter, for instance, if the Executive appoints a fox from the biggest proponent for GMO’s (we don’t need to test them, we’ll just assume they are safe) to guard the FDA henhouse that is supposed to be protecting the public weal. Just a suggestion, but perhaps you might be more effective if you were to beat this horse less often and direct your oft well-deserved barbs at different worthy foes more often…

  13. My word, my honor, is as sacred is it gets for me. Do I need to swear to a myth in order to make others feel good? Would not change my word, other than making me a liar by swearing to something I don’t believe in.

    KC, well said good sir.

    Bottom line, my god and your god are probably not the same. Does not change my word, my honor, my sense of duty, my morality, my obligations to my spouse, family, friends, county. Any oath I have taken has been honored. Better than can be said for Nixon and a host of others who swore to “god”

  14. To Keith Cunningham:

    I agree with you that there are many important issues to write about, and I have a thousand topics to choose from each week. While I try to avoid writing about trivial matters, this column is intended, to focus on issues at the intersection of religion, politics, and society. Maybe one-fourth of my columns (this one is #170) in The Mercury focus on religion and politics, but I am interested in many political and social issues. I have been working off and on, for instance, for several months on a column about the safety of GMO foods. That matter involves the way Monsanto and other GM companies are taking over the food supply through their patents and using a legal system that favors corporations over the people to do so. I hope to finish up that column soon.

    But I will not pass up writing about local issues involving governments that deprive citizens of their rights – including religious liberty. While depriving citizens of their First Amendment rights may not do them physical harm, such deprivations do create unequal social and community relations, violate the consciences of many, and make us less free human beings. And they demonstrate the arrogance of power exercised by our elected officials. If these officials will not be honest with us regarding this freedom, it becomes more difficult to trust their integrity about any action they take.

  15. Mr. Hankins,

    I appreciate your columns, particularly the articles focused on forced religion. It upsets me when I attend a government meeting and have to worry about what my neighbors or fellow citizens may think when I don’t bow my head or say Amen. The pressure of society to conform to prescribed religious behaviors is disturbing. Thank you for initiating a dialog about this.

  16. Mr. Hankins,

    I too appreciate what you have to say and agree with much of it, although I would argue that this action by the Court is not necessarily a cause to distrust their integrity but rather a superficial manifestation of the societal paradigm we currently operate under (“look at how righteous we are, proven by our public affirmation of how righteous we are”).

    These public words to me, while misplaced in our alleged pluralistic society (once again, I will change my tune when I hear folks happily remove their hat for a prayer to Mithras before one of the Commissioner meetings, another sight I would pay good money to witness), are more like a wistful looking back to an allegedly simpler times when everything was nice and neat and the Beaver was getting in trouble for chewing gun in class, and nothing messy and chaotic and disturbing was going on in society like it is now. Kinda like forcing the kids in school to observe a moment in silence will teach them some morals.

    Regardless, the point I was trying to make was that you seem to have some important things to say from your public platform – some things Brahma knows need to be discussed by the collective if we are to ever evolve to a more humane social consciousness – and I wonder if your harping on this issue 25% of the time, making more or less the same point (valid or not) every time near as I can tell (and I have admittedly been reading them for only a year or so), is not counterproductive and maybe inclines some people to ignore whatever other message you might have to say simply because they do not agree with this one, which, once again, seems less malevolent than our friends at Monsanto. At any rate, God bless, God speed, and Slainte.

  17. Mr. Cunningham,

    I understand the Fourteenth Amendment, but that doesn’t nullify the “make no law” phrase in the sentence, does it? Promoting a religion is not making it a law.

  18. Suppose our county judge wanted to pray to Allah before the court. That would be fine according to the law, so what is the problem? He is not actually making a law respecting an establishment of religion. I think the first amendment was deliberately written this way for a reason. The religious and non-religious are forced to tolerate each other as long as a law is not made to further one or the other by political means. It’s pretty clear the way it is written, and you don’t have to be a scholar to understand it.

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