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January 24th, 2012
Freethought San Marcos: Hays County Commissioners Court promotes sectarianism

Freethought San Marcos: A column

No principle is more fundamental to the founding of this country than the right of all people to follow their own religious beliefs without interference from or influence by government. Last summer, the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit issued an opinion in Joyner v. The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, which found unconstitutional the largely sectarian prayers given before meetings of the board of county commissioners in Forsyth County, North Carolina. A similar practice has been going on in Hays County for about the last eight years, subjecting all Hays County citizens to indoctrination in one primary religion.

For the last three years, I have communicated with Hays County officials privately about this constitutional issue. I hoped that my private efforts would end the practice of sectarian prayers before county commissioners meetings, but they have not.

The first three meetings of the Hays County Commissioners Court in 2012 have included prayers from Christian clergy “ in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior,” “in Jesus’ name,” and “in the name of Jesus Christ.” These invocations are hardly non-sectarian as required by the United States Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence. That Court has not prohibited all prayers before government meetings–just the sectarian kind.

All citizens who have business before the Hays County Commissioners Court, regardless of their religious beliefs, are compelled to endure proselytizing nearly exclusively by Christians. All who are other than Christian are required to endure Christian religious practice in order to bring their business before the court or participate in their rights of citizenship.

I wrote to the court in February, 2009: “Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before the Hays County Commissioners Court on civic, secular matters: variances, permits, licenses, contracts, subdivision approvals, etc. They should not be subjected to a religious show or test, or be expected to bow heads and demonstrate religious obeisance at a government function.”

Of equal importance, this sectarian practice is a potential affront to county employees who are required to attend some or all meetings. It cannot be expected that employees offended by the practice will feel free to object to attending a public meeting in which they will be subjected to indoctrination in a religion they may not follow or accept. Or perhaps, like me, they believe the government promotion of religious practice is offensive to constitutional principles.

My 2009 letter to the court made other points, as well: It is not necessary to pray on taxpayers’ time. Members of government bodies are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. When government bodies lend their power and prestige to religion, this amounts to a governmental endorsement that excludes the 14% of the population that is nonreligious (Religious Identification Survey 2001). This practice inevitably turns minorities, including atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Humanists, and others into second-class citizens.

Even when prayers are nondenominational or nonsectarian, there is no conceivable way for a government body to conduct prayers that will not inevitably exclude, divide, and embarrass various taxpayers and constituents. Of course, it is not necessary for invocations to be in the form of prayers. They can be solemn requests on behalf of the citizens to their public officials to follow the principles embodied in our founding documents in their decision-making, rather than prayers for help from the deity of one’s choice. It should be sufficient that public officials make decisions on the basis of equality, equity, fairness, justice, and the public good, rather than on an individual’s religious beliefs.

The practice of having sectarian prayers before government meetings is wholly unnecessary to the functioning of county government. I met with the county’s attorney in 2009 to discuss this sectarian prayer problem. He agreed that the Supreme Court has been clear in prohibiting sectarian prayers to open government meetings. Last August, I met with County Judge Bert Cobb to discuss the matter. He assured me that it was a matter that greatly concerned him and he would work to find a way to eliminate sectarian prayers from the invocations at Hays County Commissioners Court meetings. I was asked for and provided a nonsectarian invocation appropriate for opening government meetings.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the 4th Circuit’s decision in Forsyth, allowing it to stand. In response to the Supreme Court’s action, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, explained the impact of the Forsyth decision: “When government meetings are opened regularly with Christian prayer, it sends the unmistakable message that non-Christians are second-class citizens in their own community. That’s unconstitutional, and it’s just plain wrong. All Americans ought to feel welcome at governmental meetings. The Constitution clearly forbids government to play favorites when it comes to religion.”

This view is supported by the Forsyth opinion. Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson wrote, “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

Judge Wilkinson’s opinion explains further, “. . . prayer in governmental settings carries risks. The proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others. Such preferences violate ‘[t]he clearest command of the Establishment Clause’: that ‘one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’ (citing the 1982 case, Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244). After all, ‘[w]hatever else the Establishment Clause may mean . . . it certainly means at the very least that government may not demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed.’ (citing the 1989 case, County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, at 605). More broadly, while legislative prayer has the capacity to solemnize the weighty task of governance and encourage ecumenism among its participants, it also has the potential to generate sectarian strife. Such conflict rends communities and does violence to the pluralistic and inclusive values that are a defining feature of American public life.”

Judge Wilkinson writes further that “. . . legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one. Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, do not suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislative prayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behind a particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause.”

As further explanation, Judge Wilkinson quotes approvingly the position taken by the American Jewish Congress in opposing the sectarian prayers practiced in Forsyth County: “To . . . Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’i, Hindu, or Buddhist citizens[,] a request to recognize the supremacy of Jesus Christ and to participate in a civic function sanctified in his name is a wrenching burden.”

Other groups that supported the position taken by the original plaintiffs in the 4th circuit include the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Anti-Defamation League, the Blue Mountain Lotus Society, the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, the Hindu American Foundation, and the Sikh Council on Religion and Education.

The court further explained that a county’s policy that does “. . . not discourage sectarian prayer will inevitably favor the majoritarian faith in the community at the expense of religious minorities living therein. This effect creates real burdens on citizens — particularly those who attend meetings only sporadically — for they will have to listen to someone professing religious beliefs that they do not themselves hold as a condition of attendance and participation.”

The court found that “Public institutions throughout this country manage to regularly commence proceedings with invocations that provide all the salutary benefits of legislative prayer without the divisive drawbacks of sectarianism. . . . And religious leaders throughout this country have offered moving prayers on multitudinous occasions that have managed not to hurt the adherents of different faiths. In the end, the constitutional standard asks of the County no more than what numerous public and governmental entities already meet.”

In an important distinction, the court wrote that the county’s practice “. . . resulted in sectarian invocations meeting after meeting that advanced Christianity and that made at least two citizens feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and unwilling to participate in the public affairs of Forsyth County. To be sure, citizens in a robust democracy should expect to hear all manner of things that they do not like. But the First Amendment teaches that religious faith stands on a different footing from other forms of speech and observance. Because religious belief is so intimate and so central to our being, government advancement and effective endorsement of one faith carries a particular sting for citizens who hold devoutly to another. This is precisely the opposite of what legislative invocations should bring about. In other words, whatever the Board’s intentions, its policy, as implemented, has led to exactly the kind of ‘divisiveness the Establishment Clause seeks rightly to avoid.’”

Drawing from the views of our first president in a letter from him to Edward Newenham, dated June 22, 1792, the court wrote, “George Washington once observed that ‘[r]eligious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.’ . . . As our nation becomes more diverse, so also will our faiths. To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord. In churches, homes, and private settings beyond number, citizens practice diverse faiths that lift and nurture both personal and civic life. But in their public pursuits, Americans respect the manifold beliefs of fellow citizens by abjuring sectarianism and embracing more inclusive themes. That the Board and religious leaders in Forsyth County hold steadfast to their faith is certainly no cause for condemnation. But where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance. The policy here, as implemented, upsets the careful balance the First Amendment seeks to bring about.”

For nearly three years I have been fooled by political cleverness into thinking that the matter of sectarian prayers at Hays County Commissioners Court meetings was being dealt with forthrightly and in keeping with current jurisprudence. I can no longer live with that delusion. The new year has brought us ample evidence that government officials are pursuing a sectarian agenda in Hays County. For that, they should be ashamed and should be held accountable.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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17 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Hays County Commissioners Court promotes sectarianism

  1. Amen Lamar. It’s just not right for this governmental body to continue this tradition, started by its predecessors, of forcing the general public to endure a ceremony of the religion chosen by this body. This is a law making board, they should respect the constitution.

  2. Wow! To think you put so much thought in your article decrying the fact you much “endure” while someone prays to Jesus for the benefit of all. Smarter men than you have searched scripture and tried their hardest to disprove the bible and prove that Christ did not live and die for humankind. They came to the decision that the bible is indeed, the word of God. I challenge you to use your wisdom to do the same. In the meantime, I will pray for you, sincerely.

  3. It must be difficult to go through life constantly looking for things to be offended by. Imagine if you had chosen to use the energy spent on your crusade to support a cause that would benefit mankind instead. Alas, it appears that there is now no greater cause in America than to prevent someone from possibly being offended by the expression of faith. I suppose you get your knickers in a wad when someone tells you “Merry Christmas” too.

    I have never seen anyone in any circumstance “forced” to pray. If you choose not to participate in the prayer – then don’t. Take a book to read so you won’t be bored by that interminable near-minute-long period when prayers are offered.

  4. We do not live in the 4th Circuit and the Supreme Court did not adopt the 4th Circuit opinion. You find it persuasive but don’t quote it like it is law, instead of a judge’s non-binding interpretation of law. I am troubled that Cobb shared your concern.

  5. Freedom of religion goes hand in hand with freedom from religion.
    It is not the place of our elected representitives to show a prefrence of one superstition over another.
    While true the majority of Americans believe in talking snakes and donkeys, flying zombie carpenters and condminium fish it is wrong to ignore the people who believe in god cows and magic underware, thetan spooky ghosts and penis obsessed mountain gods.
    It is better to keep your beliefs at home or in your temples, churches, ashrams and the like.
    The process of American goverment should be secular

  6. I’m a little confused. You like the 4th Circuit’s decision–yet it certainly doesn’t help atheists who still have to endure non-sectarian prayers like they had to endure sectarian prayers.

    There are three levels of thought that pertain to such questions, but we don’t encourage nuance anymore—(it seems to be all or nothing):
    -Constitutional Is it unconstitutional?
    -Policy Is it a good and fair policy?
    -Conscience Can I personal support it or participate in it?

    For example, on the issue of government support of faith based initiatives (i.e. support of Salvation Army or faith-based prison options etc)

    -Constitutional In my opinion the Supreme Court’s Lemon test (Lemon v Kurtzman) is adequate protection guarding against government endorsement of a religion so that such policies—per say—do not violate the Constitution’s religious establishment clause.

    -Policy Many think some faith-based initiatives are effective, especially prison ones.

    -Conscience I personally would not want to accept government money to support something that should be supported with offerings and risk government control of how that money is spent in terms of my religious expression.

    We need to help people think with nuance. We live in day in which we are conditioned to think “If it offends me it must be unconstitutional.”

    On prayers at public events:

    -Constitutional I see that the courts are now beginning to edit prayers, but the courts have upheld prayer at public events, except in public school events. Baptists were religious minorities who helped to push for the first amendment before states ratified the Constitution—which originally was sent to the states without amendments. The key-in my view-is the concept of coercion, not offense.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a perfect example. Their religion prohibits them from joining in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The courts supported policies of non-coercion, but they did not outlaw the pledge in schools. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were simply excused from participating.

    There is a place for majoritarian practice—I know that’s shocking in this new mentality we have wrongly learned in recent decades. Minorities should be protected from coercive or discriminatory practices, but not from every act that may offend them. This is where nuance and balance is lost. People assume that the majority in a local community should not be able to have certain religious practices or symbols if even one person might be offended. We seem to be moving in that direction, but that has not historically been the Court’s view even in the post-school prayer era. The Courts sought a balance between the majoritarian practices and the minority’s rights, not a clean sweep either way. If I were to be able to outlaw everything that offended me in a personal or religious way, public schools would probably have to change curriculum and we would carefully edit what teachers said and government policy would have to change in many ways to suit my conscience. Thankfully, what offends me is not necessarily unconstitutional.

    Even scholars who favor a strict ‘wall of separation’ admit that establishment of religion was a well-understood concept that did not involve customs or traditions that were religious, but rather public support for one (and in some states two) church/denomination. Reading scholars who attempt to defend historically an expanded meaning of establishment of religion is entertaining.

    -Policy It’s up to each entity whether or how to have prayers at public events, and on a local basis the ministers who pray at public events will inevitably reflect the religious make-up of the community, whether evangelical, Catholic, Mormon or perhaps New Age in some cities. I think it may be a bad policy to have prayers at public events in some cities (like Austin) but that’s up to them…we should not dictate policy for all communities.

    -Conscience If I’m asked to give a public prayer I try to remember that there are people of different or no faiths, and I try avoid dogmatism or ‘preaching through prayer’, and try to let the words be as uniting as possible. I can also acknowledge that we may pray in different ways without denying my own conscience. I will often end “in your name I pray, Amen.” But I don’t think it’s the end of the world if I were to address a prayer in Jesus name because, as adults, I think we assume that we differ on exactly how we might address our prayers. While it would be better to invite clergy who have more of this mindset, I don’t think it’s the end of the world if some clergy just can’t leave off Jesus’ name in addressing their prayers. We are who we are. A minister who is particularly unthoughtful about how he prays in a public forum–is not so much forcing or dictating doctrine, as he is helping to make the case for the other side!

    If I chose to live in a Mormon community and I attended a public event, I might expect a public prayer to tilt a little Mormon—maybe even a lot. Baptists have historically asked for their right of conscience to be preserved: that they not be coerced to pay taxes to support a specific church, or have government interference in their practices, or to be in other ways materially discriminated for their religious views. But religious minorities should not expect to never be offended by the majority’s traditions or practices.

    In a Mormon community if prayers were too adamantly Mormon, Baptists may even go so far as to do what Jehovah’s Witnesses do-when they teach their children to politely not participate in the pledge. We are big boys and girls, and we can politely dissent without forcing a local community to cease practices or traditions that are meaningful to it.

    There’s power of expression in quiet dissent! People respect courage of conscience. They don’t respect the desire to bend the community to the conscience of the individual. The individual’s rights are paramount, but in the balance of things, the larger community also has certain rights as well. I know that’s heresy today in how we’ve been taught.

    An atheist should not bow his head during prayer, but continue reading or whatever as long as it’s not disruptive. This is a more powerful invitation for people to consider atheism than complaining and lawsuits. My respect for Jehovah’s Witnesses (whom I greatly disagree with on many things) is raised greatly because they sued for the right not to have their children forced to say the pledge—not to remove the pledge.

  7. And, Paula, many smart men and women have come to the conclusion that something other than the new Testament Bible is the Truth.
    What is wrong with respecting others’ Truth?
    I know atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus who all live exemplary lives, but do not subscribe to Jesus and the new Testament Bible. A time of silence, as Quakers have in their Meetings, would be respectful of all.

  8. I also think it’s interesting how involved this court is getting in monitoring the level of offense or the level of good will in a public setting during an invocation. Much of what they’re saying is good advice–but does it need to be law? I can see the court assigning a monitor to events to take a survey following the invocation to determine whether the court has achieved the exact mood it desires in the room. Maybe they’ll give everyone in the room a device to record their exact appraisals of every phrase uttered in an invocation. Do we really want the courts to dictate exact recipes for public expression that will precisely please everyone emotionally? Is this the role of the federal government?

    Are we going to completely give up the responsibility of local communities to manage their own affairs?

  9. A moment of silence covers it all, and offends no one. It’s really just.that.simple. Hays County should try it.

  10. Cori, you are making a policy suggestion–which is good. You don’t try to turn a policy issue into a Constitutional issue. Thanks!

    A moment of silence may miss some elements that many appreciate in an invocation–the words that help their minds to refocus, or which might remind a public official of the privilege of serving, the purpose of serving and his or her ethical duties. The invocation might help them to forgive, think differently about others, or challenge them to be more open to other ideas or more resolved to do what is right. An invocation for many people (particularly those who believe in prayer) can register deeply within them. Sometimes (by coincidence I’m sure)the words of the prayer seem to perfectly intersect a problem that person is dealing with. (And who says that only clergy should lead invocations?)

    There’s nothing terrible about a moment of silence–its a good policy option for some communities. As time goes by and the public’s views change, it may be more and more preferred. But once you give the invocation up–it would be very hard to go back. Each community needs to consider what it will lose and never get back.

    I would say to Christians–work to preserve these symbols and traditions, but don’t act like the loss of them is so grave! God works in surprising and subtle ways-and we have many more important things to do other than try to preserve these worthy things.

  11. There are those who appear committed to needlessly creating situations whereby some of their fellow citizens will feel intense social pressure to conform against their consciences, feel humiliated and insulted, and feel like second-class citizens. The pro-sectarian invocation folks should not be deluded into thinking themselves charitable, meek, humble folk who seek to spread the word of God by loving example rather than by intimidation, fear or coercion. Because they are anything but good examples of Christian love and kindness when they virtually compel people — people who scarcely have a choice than to deal with or be affected by these government entities — to suffer indignities or endure social/political/economic harm.

    There have always been and are still non-Christians/nontheists in Texas who have been contributing members of society. Some of them desire or need to engage in public affairs or do business with the court and the city councils. To the pro-sectarian invocation folks: Do you expect nontheists/non-Christians to risk harm to their political/social/economic interests, and if so, why? What do you hope to achieve by doing this?

    It is unreasonable — and, I daresay, somewhat mean-spirited — to expect them to sit and read, or to otherwise refrain from feigning agreement with the invocation speaker as he/she at length falsely claims community-wide fidelity/obligations to Christianity, and as the speaker says such things as, “*We* thank you/call on you, God/Jesus,” or “In Jesus’ name *we* pray.” It is also unreasonable to expect the average non-Christian/nontheist to not feel insulted or deeply uncomfortable during these sectarian religious exercises — that is, unless the intention is to politically/socially/economicaly marginalize and harm non-Christians/nontheists.

    For the non-Christian/nontheist, the self-respecting, safe solution, for the moment, appears to be arriving late to the meetings and risk looking bad, missing something, or not getting a seat. If one is an elected official who happens to be a non-Christian/nontheist, then one’s options are even fewer — one has to take the insults, endure the humiliation/discomfort, or play along and be a hypocrite. Is it the intention of some to make it as uncomfortable as possible for non-Christians to run for and hold public offices?

    A moment of silence or a non-sectarian invocation are the most ethical solutions.

  12. In Canada a Muslim family is on trial for killing their 3 daughters. They felt that it was morally correct by their religion to do so. This is why elected officials, who represent everyone, should stick to what their jobs are, seeing to it that America’s laws are enforced, and not give overt indications that they have a preference for their Christian constituents. There is a reason why we don’t see prayer held in any other courts in texas.. From county courts at law all the way to the federal courts. Yes, commissioners court is less formal, but please stick to the business that you are there for.

  13. There is no reason that non participation in a moment of prayer should automatically equate to feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, or degradation. It’s the height of selfishness to demand that others around you refrain from a certain behavior simply because you choose to be offended by it.

    It is NOT unreasonable to believe that a non-believer or atheist would feel “deeply uncomfortable” or “insulted” over the offering of a prayer. The emotionally mature non-believer should be strong enough in his or her beliefs (or lack thereof) that the expression of belief by others should not make them feel any differently at all. The mere fact that you chose to use the word “insulted” is a pretty clear indicator that it’s all about *your* feelings. Perhaps you shouldn’t go through life choosing to be insulted because others feel differently than you do?

    One of the first things you learn in classes on counseling is that no one can *make* anyone else feel a certain way. You *choose* to feel the way that you do depending on how much power you choose to give others over you.

  14. Dano, this is not about how “non participation in a moment of prayer” makes us feel. A sectarian prayer worded differently would cause far less offense. I think you need to listen to a few of these invocations to know what we mean.

    Do you really think it’s reasonable for an invocation speaker to expect nontheist engineers, developers, citizens, and others who need to be in the good graces of the general public, or the city council/court, to stand up and feign a kind of agreement with the speakers’ words, to in effect LIE? You really think we who need to do business with the council or court should feel obligated to publicly agree that “we” pray to their god and “we” seek their god’s blessing — “we” this and “we” that? Why doesn’t the speaker say “I”? Why doesn’t the speaker say “we Christians”? Nope — it’s “We” — Everybody. ‘Everybody should worship our god, and if you don’t, you’re not really part of this community, and this government is here to primarily serve us, not you.’ That’s the message we hear, loud and clear.

    Further, by the logic you used before, it would be “the height of selfishness” to demand people refrain from standing naked in the rear of the courtroom, because, after all, to be offended by that is a mere “choice” and no fault of the nudists.

    Dano, I don’t know what idealized, Buddha-like standards you are trying to hold us to, but it just doesn’t fly. In the real world, one person’s behavior has likely affects on other people, and if there is any place where behavior should be regulated to ensure the least offense to the general public, it is a governmental meeting. The invocation folks started this — they are the ones demanding that a *tax-funded activity* involve mass deference to their god.

    I wouldn’t have near a problem with this if the invocation was non-sectarian — heck, it could even be sectarian as long as the speaker didn’t use language that marginalizes us.

    According to a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist presidential candidate. The only other group with the lowest percentage is homosexuals at 67 percent. So I find it extremely difficult, given the language and tone of voice used by these invocation speakers, to believe they don’t have an agenda that involves perpetuating an atmosphere of prejudice against nontheists and promoting a certain brand of Christianity at taxpayers’ expense.

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