Local officials may be about to test whether personal freedom of religion allows for freedom from religion in county court proceedings.
The Hays County Commissioners Court is potentially coming under legal fire for conducting sectarian Christian prayers at the beginning of their meetings. Religion should have no place in the rulings of elected officials and constituents should not feel isolated or underrepresented due to particular religious practices conducted in the public meetings. Instead, a moment of silence needs to be implemented to accommodate a wider spectrum of beliefs.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the court complaining that their invocation violates the Establishment Clause. This clause of the First Amendment is generally cited as the reason religion and government should not mix, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Claiming they violated the Establishment Clause may be a tough case to prove as long as these moments of prayer are not affecting commissioners’ decisions as a law-making entity.
Commissioners do have the right to freedom of religion, and invocation is present on local, state and national levels of government. A Chaplain was elected during the first U.S. Senate meeting in 1789, and every meeting since has begun with a prayer. However, this letter to the commissioners is evidence that at least one individual is made uncomfortable by the practice. The editorial board believes this unnecessary element of the meeting can and should be changed.
Instead, this time could be spent in a moment of silence. Members of the court and public could pray to any deity or denomination they see fit, abstain from praying, plan their next meal or simply gather their thoughts. This will allow those who want to pray to continue exercising their right to freedom of religion. It would avoid unnecessarily alienating individuals who want to exercise their own right not to practice religion or those whose religious views do not align with the meetings’ sectarian Christian prayers.
Elected officials cannot hope to please all their constituents all of the time. Dealing with the public agreeing or disagreeing with decisions is an occupational hazard for public officials. There are many people in the community who have no problem with this practice, if the more than 20 citizens who spoke in favor of the Christian prayers at the Sept. 25 commissioners court meeting are any indication. However, this unnecessary display of religion in a public meeting is not representative of non-christian constituents.
A potential commissioners court lawsuit may cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the reality is no one should feel that their religious practices, or lack thereof, put them out of place during a meeting of their own elected officials. The tax dollars of a non-christian constituent are as valuable to the court’s proceedings as those of Christian constituents. All religions and nonbelievers should be welcomed in the meetings with a non-sectarian moment of silence.