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October 23rd, 2013
Freethought San Marcos: How Hays County government promotes religion (Part 2)

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Part 2: The Nature of Its Religious Practice

In Part 1 on this topic, I explained how the Hays County Commissioners Court established religious worship as an integral part of its meetings.  In this column, I will explain some of the details of that religious worship as the Court’s Policy has been implemented.

In keeping with the Policy, Chaplain Gary Smith compiled a list of authentic religious institutions within Hays County, and was charged with “[e]stablishing a method for randomly selecting religious leaders from the list, who shall be invited to attend a session of the Hays County Commissioners court and provide an invocation.”

That list contains the names of 116 religious institutions whose “authenticity” apparently has been verified under the guidelines the Court established in its Policy, including one of the largest Hindu Temples in the United States, located in northern Hays County.  In addition, the list includes chaplains that contravene the policy:  the chaplain for the Blanco Cowboy Church located in Blanco, Texas, in Blanco County, and the Hays County Jail Chaplain.  Included, also, is the chaplain at Central Texas Medical Center, which is the only hospital located in San Marcos and is owned by the Adventist Health System.

The Blanco Cowboy Church is not located in Hays County as required by the Policy, and the Hays County Jail is not a religious institution.  The Central Texas Medical Center describes itself as “a not-for-profit health care organization,” but it does have an IRS exemption as a religious institution.  Without question, the persons from the Blanco Cowboy Church and the Hays County Jail who have given invocations are themselves religious leaders, but their participation is out of compliance with the Court’s Policy.  While including supplicants who are excluded by the Policy creates a potential legal problem for the Court, it is the practice of promoting and sponsoring sectarian religious invocations from any source that raises the most serious constitutional questions.

Those who pray before meetings of the Court, unlike the Nebraska Chaplain’s invocations permitted by the Marsh decision, direct their prayers not only to the members of the Court (the legislative body), but also to the audience of citizens in attendance (and those watching on an internet stream or later video) or on behalf of the audience, without regard for the audience’s religious beliefs.  Almost always, those citizens in attendance are asked to stand for the prayer.  In most meetings this past year, County Judge Bert Cobb or someone else has directed everyone in attendance to stand for the invocation, as in “Let’s stand for the invocation.”  When people obey the command, they become participants in the religious worship sponsored by the Court.

Often, the prayers make references to those in attendance at the meeting or otherwise include them in the content of the prayers.  Sometimes, members of the Court, Hays County officials or employees, or others in attendance ask for various individuals who are ill or families that have had a death to be remembered or included in the invocation prayers.  When this happens, the meeting room atmosphere is akin to a Southern Baptist prayer meeting.  And occasionally there are groups of children present.  Children are in a class that the courts have always held deserve special protection from the influence of government-initiated religious practice.

There have been 39 meetings between October 23, 2012 (the first meeting after the policy was adopted), and October 15, 2013.  At 20 of those meetings, the invocation was given by Chaplain Gary Smith.  Six invocations were given by the Rev. Ben Nelson, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Marcos.  Three invocations were given by Pastor Jeff Latham, Westover Baptist Church, San Marcos.  Two invocations each were given by Hays County Constable, Precinct 3, Darrell W. Ayres, who is identified as the Pastor at the Blanco Cowboy Church, and by Dr. Jenna Heart, First United Methodist Church, San Marcos.

One invocation each was given by Rev. Martin Newton, First Baptist Church, San Marcos; a Hindu preacher, Sushree Diwakari Devi, from the Austin Hindu Temple and Community Center located north of Driftwood in Hays County; the Rev. Esperanza Ramirez, Senior Pastor at the El Buen Pastor Methodist Church in San Marcos; Chaplain Merlin Starr, Central Texas Medical Center; Capt. Robert J. Hicks, Chaplain at the Hays County Jail; Retired Air Force Chaplain Dan Franks, who was visiting from out of the county and is the father-in-law of Chaplain Smith.

In those 39 meetings, eight different religious leaders of authentic religious institutions within Hays County have participated in giving invocations.  Thus, religious leaders from 108 of Hays County’s authentic religious institutions – those that legitimately qualify for tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code – have not participated.  Chaplain Smith informs me that more will be participating in the next quarter.  But other questions remain.

Contrary to the Court’s admonition found in its Policy that it is “part of Hays County’s efforts to establish a program of invocations that does not proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief,” other provisions of the Policy allow or require some proselytizing.  For example, the chaplain is directed to tell religious leaders that there are no restrictions on the content of their invocations, allowing the leaders to proselytize, advance, or disparage at will.

And special efforts are made to promote and recognize the particular religion of the supplicant.  The Policy requires the County Judge to “announce, in open Court, . . . the religious leader’s name, title, and the name of the religious institution with which he or she is affiliated,” thus assuring that particular religious groups will be advertised by the Commissioner’s Court and have a prominent role in the business of the Court.  Such advertising is a form of proselytizing and advances individual religious groups, especially that of the county’s volunteer Chaplain, who, as noted above, has used his position to give over half of the invocations this past year.

In addition, according to Mark Kennedy, religious leaders who give invocations may invoke the names of any deities they wish to pray to, including Jesus or other gods, assuring that the prayers can be as sectarian and proselytizing as any religious person might wish.  Kennedy believes that, when the government sponsors religious worship by inviting religious leaders to pray in public meetings, the Court is creating a “public forum” for those invitees.

However, Kennedy has misconstrued the nature of a public forum, which, by definition, is one where anyone may speak freely.  A 1983 Supreme Court decision made clear that a public forum is one on public property used “by the public as a place for expressive activity.”  (Emphasis added.)  In the case of invocations, only religious leaders who are invited have the privilege to express themselves.  Thus, no public forum exists in relation to the invocations practice of the Court, though an actual public forum is provided on every agenda of the Court and held later in each meeting.

As noted previously, a majority of the prayers given as invocations before the Court have been made by Chaplain Smith, who, to his credit, seems to have made a deliberate effort to keep his prayers nonsectarian, though they are in the Judeo-Christian tradition, sometimes with a touch of folksiness or new-ageiness, and sometimes involving wishes for sick people to get well and commenting on the need for rain or other special assistance.  The Chaplain appears to be trying to use ecumenical, if not inter-faith, language in his prayers.

At the meeting on December 18, 2012, prior to his invocation, the Chaplain gave a religious lesson on the reason for the lighting of menorahs during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.  Not once in his 20 prayers has he invoked names identified exclusively with Christianity, such as Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, or our Lord, though he has expressed religious ideas that many people outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition would not accept.

The same can’t be said for some of the other supplicants, from whom we heard phrases identified with Christianity:  “Father, I thank you Lord Jesus for what you have done for our nation”;  “The state of Texas is doing great things because we honor your son”;  “In the precious name of Jesus”;  “In the name of Jesus I pray”;  “Today Lord, Hays County is doing wonderful things because we honor your name and your son”;  “In the name of your son”;  “In Christ’s name we pray”;  “We thank you for your son Jesus Christ who is mighty to save”; and “In the name of Jesus Christ I pray.”

The second most scheduled supplicant is the Rev. Ben Nelson of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Marcos.  In his six invocations, he appears always to use the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, sometimes calling attention to it as though everyone is aware of it and finds it just as splendid and important as he does.  The Episcopal Rector often appears to think that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer should be seen as some authority in the lives of everyone, and that we should all be as enamored of that liturgical document as he is.

In spite of my general indifference to the Book of Common Prayer and my inability to accept it as authority for my life, I agree with many of the sentiments expressed by the Rev. Nelson from that source.  For example, I would like for us “to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and injustice” and for our elected officials to have “the spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice that with steadfast purpose they may faithfully serve in their offices to promote the well-being of all people.”

But I find other words from the Book of Common Prayer, as spoken by the Rev. Nelson, to violate both my own conscience and the godless Constitution which was adopted in 1787 and took effect two years later:  “Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.”

In no way do I accept that my government is entrusted to public officials as a result of some divine power.  Our government officials get their power through the will of the people.  If some people want to believe that a deity controls our political process, that is their prerogative, but many Hays County citizens believe otherwise.

On the other hand, I do hope that our public officials are imbued not only “with the spirit of wisdom,” but with actual wisdom, though the older I get, the less evidence I find to support such a proposition.

I find another of the Rev. Nelson’s prayers, that “human rights (be) guarded and observed,” a bit ironic in view of the violation of conscience that the Court’s invocations Policy has caused for all Hays County citizens who follow religious paths different from those followed by the five members of the Court, all of whom follow some branch of Christianity, which reportedly has about 41,000 different denominations or separate groups.

Several of the prayers offered as invocations speak directly or indirectly to Christian beliefs, doctrines, or dogma, including God the Creator, the Trinity, Omniscience, Revelation, Original Sin, Angels, Atonement, Miracles, Redemption, Divinity of Christ, Salvation, and Prayer itself.  Two of the supplicants offered prayers in languages other than English (to which I have no objection) – Hindi (presumably) and Spanish – so I can’t be sure who they were praying to or what they said in their prayers.  But, with the exception of the Hindu presentation, all other supplicants were identified in one way or another as Christian.

The five Christian members of the Court may claim in their Policy that they don’t want Hays County government to promote Christianity, but except for once this past year, that is what they have done at each meeting by either word or deed.  The one invocation in one year by a non-Christian speaks louder than all their words.  And the fault is not that of Chaplain Smith, who described to me what sounds like a daunting task – personally contacting all 116 religious institutions, as he started doing this past year.  It is not the Chaplain’s fault that all but one of those institutions are Christian.  That circumstance predates the Policy, but the Policy is completely the responsibility of the Commissioners Court.  Its members are the ones who decided to limit participation in the invocations to 115 Christians and one non-Christian religious follower.

If the Hays County Commissioners Court were not interested in promoting religion – almost exclusively the Christian religion – it would allow invocations to be given by some of the approximately 20% of Hays County citizens who claim no religious affiliation.  Instead, they seek only members of the “faith community” as Chaplain Smith refers to those asked to give the invocations.  Even if they invite an occasional Hindu or Muslim (something the Chaplain is working on), the Court is promoting religion over non-religion, and promoting mostly the Christian religion over all others, practices which are forbidden by the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

[This is the second of three columns analyzing the invocations practices of the Hays County Commissioners Court.  Part 3, which deals with the constitutionality of the invocations practice, will appear next week.]

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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

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3 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: How Hays County government promotes religion (Part 2)

  1. I wish you would spend some of your free time (of which you seem to have too much) on something worthwhile and more beneficial to our community. How about trying to solve our school childrens’ hunger problem, or our domestic violence problem, or our homeless problem? Your time and intelligence could be so much better utilized than worrying about who is praying, where, how often, and to whom. Really. I will continue to pray and applaud those who do… anywhere, anytime.

  2. To Marianne Moore:

    I don’t see that the job of a columnist is to solve social problems, but to write about them in an effort to educate people, make people aware of things they may not be aware of, and perhaps offer solutions. I write about many social and political problems from a freethought perspective, which has a long history in the Hill Country. Freethought tradition holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than on authority, tradition, or religious and political dogma. I write about many topics, including constitutional rights, politics, public policy, consumer issues, religion, and whatever strikes my interest.

    In the last five years of writing a weekly column for The Mercury, I have at least touched on each of the problems you mention, and may focus in greater detail on them in the future. I don’t have any grand plan for what I write, Most topics are decided weekly. Some are recurring matters that I write about periodically. The one-year anniversary of the new invocations Policy became a time for me to assess how the policy was working.

    However, I should not be misunderstood about prayer. I do not oppose people praying. That is an individual decision. What I object to (which I thought was obvious) is my government promoting religious practices, including prayer. The Commissioners Court has no right to prescribe what is acceptable or orthodox with respect to the religious practices of any citizen, nor should it have any opinion about religious practice. That is outside the parameters of its responsibilities.

  3. Some ‘believers” do not think God can hear a prayer unless it is accompanied by “in Jesus’ name” or “in the name of Jesus.” I do not understand the necessity of prayer before political meetings, nor do I see the reasons for saying Pledges of Allegiance to the U.S. and Texas. I do not go to a commissioners court meeting to be churched or have my allegiance questioned. Preachers should save their efforts for their congregations and people who want and need their help. If those at a public meeting must listen to a prayer, preachers should be educated about and expected to deliver non-sectarian prayers.

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