Invocations will continue to precede Hays County Commissioners Court meetings after a new policy was passed Tuesday.
Policy & Procedures and Resolution documents from the Hays Commissioners Court are available for online viewing.
According to the policy, the court “will not show a purposeful preference of one religious view over another.” A volunteer chaplain will coordinate religious leaders from around the community to give invocation at commissioners court meetings. In addition, each religious leader is allowed to use terminology pertinent to their religion.
“After consultation with our attorney, we came up with this policy that the court could support, and a majority of our constituents would be in favor of,” said Commissioner Mark Jones, Precinct 2.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent an initial letter to the court in April in response to a complaint the group received from a Hays County resident. The letter noted strictly Christian prayers said during a period of 13 meetings occurred 75 percent of the time.
A second letter was sent to the court in June threatening legal action if no response was received.
“We are definitely disappointed with the decision of yesterday,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for American United for Separation of Church and State. “What the (court) was doing before (Tuesday’s) meeting was a great improvement to what they had been doing. After the complaint, they temporarily switched to prayers that were inclusive of all religious groups and nonsectarian.”
Jones said the court chose to allow sectarian word choice to different religious representatives rather than dictating what can and can’t be said by a few clergymen.
“If they are Christian, they could mention Jesus as much as they want. If they are Muslim they could do whatever,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to limit what anyone could say.”
Luchenitser said the Americans United for Separation of Church and State are considering their options for the next steps in this process.
“We need to talk to the people who complained to us, and we will see how this policy is implemented. And we will decide what to do next from there,” Luchenitser said. “This new policy would essentially be another way of accomplishing what they did before, which was having primarily sectarian Christian prayer.”
Luchenitser said the organization is advocating for nonsectarian prayer, not for the absence of prayer altogether before meetings.
Under the new policy, if the majority of ministers who give prayer turn out to be Christian ministers who give Christian prayers, it will violate the separation of church and state clause within the constitution, Luchenitser said. He said these acts will put the county at risk if strictly Christian prayer continues.
Giving predominately Christian prayer at the opening of commissioners court meetings sends a message to the county citizens that it is the official religion of the county and any other religious beliefs are second-class, Luchenitser said.
“We didn’t do this to appease any particular group, we did this to be within the bounds of the constitution of the United States,” said Commissioner Ray Whisenant, Precinct 4. “I think it was a unanimous vote, and I would say that is a good indicator that we feel like we are doing something that provides Constitution protection as well as freedom of speech for our citizens.”
Matthew Davis, president of Student Secular Alliance, said he thinks a moment of silence would be a valid solution for commissioners. He said this would be all-inclusive, allowing for prayer without excluding people who are not Christian.
“Anyone can do anything they want in a moment of silence,” Davis said. “I feel it is (county commissioners’) responsibility to represent everyone as best as they can. When they open up their meeting with prayer, they’re excluding their constituents who aren’t Christian. They are saying ‘We are a Christian organization,’ which a governmental body of the United States is not allowed to do. “
For Jones, prayer is a part of his daily routine, with or without the invocation before the meetings, he said.
“If anybody needs some divine intervention, it’s our elected officials,” Jones said. “I need all the help up there I can get. I just think that it is good for the county that we are taking a hand in letting people know that we feel that is important and there is a higher being.”