Invocation, the prayer that opens every Hays County Commissioners Court meeting, proceeded as usual Tuesday, despite being the topic of a potential lawsuit facing the court.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county commissioners a letter dated April 27 regarding a complaint they received over the inclusion of sectarian prayer during the meetings.
Though the letter implied further legal action would be taken, commissioners took no action over the potential lawsuit during the Sept. 25 meeting.
According to the letter, this practice violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The court can only be in compliance by either no longer praying or restricting invocation to nonsectarian prayer.
The letter said the sectarian prayer alienated non-judeo-christian constituents and left them feeling unwelcomed and unrepresented by commissioners. Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in the letter that commissioners are not representing their citizens by continuing sectorial prayers.
The letter requested the court respond within 30 days.
“They claim that the only way we can maintain prayer in the court is a nonsectarian (prayer), by not mixing certain Christian words like ‘Jesus,’ ‘Father God’ or ‘Holy Spirit,’” said Judge Bert Cobb. “This court changed its behavior, and I did all the prayer for 10 weeks, which was just fine with them.”
Cobb said the issue re-emerged after a volunteer said “in the name of Jesus” during a meeting.
The organization sent another letter to the court June 19. The letter expressed the need for further action if there was no reported response from commissioners after 14 days.
Cobb wouldn’t name the person whose complaints prompted the letters from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The court opened public comment to allow for transparency to constituents in Hays County, Cobb said.
“We have been very cognizant of the problems of the separation of church and state,” Cobb said. “We have puzzled with this for months, but this being the most open court in the history of Hays County, we thought it was time that you understood the problem. This court was very aware of it and is doing its very best to comply with the law in all forms.”
Cobb said the entirety of the court wants to keep prayer as part of court sessions and would have to decide how to pay for litigation should legal action occur.
Jonathan Saenz, Buda resident and attorney for the Liberty Institute, said his firm specializes in constitutional law and would offer the county its legal services free of charge.
“Time and time again we have seen groups threaten well-meaning public servants like yourselves trying to do the right thing and continuing to follow the law, with threats that are baseless and are not followed by current law,” Saenz said to the commissioners. “Time and time again, Liberty Institute, myself and our trained litigators have stood with officials like you, have stood for religious liberty.”
Saenz said the letter cited opinion, not legal fact, to support the claim prayer before meetings was unconstitutional.
Sam Montoya, a pastor in San Marcos for 41 years, said he has given invocations “with his whole heart” at community functions over the years.
“You have a heavy burden upon you,” Montoya said to the court. “You have a heavy burden to lead us. Please continue those prayers and allow us to be part of this work.”
There were approximately 20 residents who spoke at the meeting, none of whom asked the commissioners to stop praying. Among those was Susan Narvaiz, former San Marcos mayor and congressional candidate. She said she supported the court, not only as a Christian but as a representative who faced similar problems.
“This is what many men and women died for,” Narvaiz said. “Today is your day to defend it. Not on a bloody battlefield in a far away land, but right here at home in Hays County.”