Do pray: County court chooses to keep prayers at meetings

by ANDY SEVILLA

After coming under fire recently for opening meetings with invocations, the Hays County Judge and commissioners decided to continue with prayer “for the benefit and blessing of the Court.”

At their Oct. 16 meeting, the Commissioners Court decided unanimously to approve a Resolution and a Policy and Procedure regarding invocations before meetings.

“The Hays County Commissioners Court, an elected legislative and deliberative public body, wishes to maintain a tradition of solemnizing its proceedings by allowing an opening invocation before each of its meetings, for the benefit and blessing of the Court,” stated their approved resolution.

The court took this determination after a Washington D.C.-based group complained of potential constitutional violations.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote in an April letter to Hays County Judge Bert Cobb and all four commissioners that after receiving a complaint regarding the court’s “practice of opening its meetings with sectarian Christian prayer,” they reviewed court recordings and noticed that nearly 70 percent of prayers offered invoked the name of Jesus Christ.

The group said they reviewed court-meeting recordings between Jan. 3 and April 10 and found that 10 out of the 13 prayers offered were sectarian Christian prayer, effectively, in their opinion, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“(We) ask that you bring your prayer practice into constitutional compliance by either ending the practice altogether or by revising your prayer policy to allow only nonsectarian prayer,” Americans United wrote.

Cobb initially brought the matter up at the Sept. 25 meeting, where he said the court would continue the practice of invocations, but they had to “decide how to do it without being sued,” the AustinAmerican Statesman quoted Cobb as saying.

According to the September meeting’s minutes, the court convened into executive session for 30 minutes but took no action on the matter.

When asked, during a recess of the Oct. 23 Commissioners Court meeting, about the court’s decision to move forward with invocations, Cobb said, “I won’t answer that in court right now. It’s not the point.”

Cobb went on to say that he would not discuss the matter in or out of court, even though he and the commissioners took action on the issue at the Oct. 16 open meeting.

According to the Policy and Procedures regarding invocations held at Commissioners Court, a volunteer chaplain will coordinate invocations. The chaplain will be responsible for surveying the existence of various churches, mosques, temple and other religious institutions within Hays County in an effort to compile a list and establish a method for randomly selecting religious leaders to provide invocations at court.

The invitations extended to religious leaders will communicate freedom in delivering their respective invocation, and it will communicate that the invitation extended to them is “part of Hays County’s effort to establish a program of invocation that does not proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief.”

The Commissioners Court’s approved resolution cites the Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers (1983) as a defense and background for allowing invocations.

“(T)he opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

Americans United, however, said in citing the same Supreme Court case that prayers at the opening of legislative sessions are only permissible if they do not use language specific to one religion.

“Upholding prayers at legislative session where prayer-giver had ‘removed all references to Christ’ and ‘there was no indication that the prayer opportunity ha(d) been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,’” the group wrote citing Marsh v. Chambers (1983).

The group went on to cite the court case County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989), “explaining that ‘not even the ‘unique history’ of legislative prayer can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.’”

Both the county and Americans United provided several citations of different court cases that gave credence to each argument. Americans United said the Fifth Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over Texas, has not definitively ruled on invocations before legislative meetings, but the group stated “the last time the court examined the issue, it concluded, in a panel decision, that Marsh (v. Chambers) forbids sectarian prayer.”

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