The members of the Hays County Commissioners Court were correct in embracing an inclusive prayer policy that highlights the variety of religions practiced in the area.
Before the Oct. 16 policy change, only Christian prayers were said during Hays County Commissioners Court meetings. According to an Oct. 18 University Star article, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the court in April about the issue after receiving a complaint from a resident. The letter stated that during a period of 13 meetings, strictly Christian prayers were given 75 percent of the time.
A second letter was sent in June threatening legal action if the organization did not receive an answer. The new commissioners court policy states that an invocation can only be said if all faiths are given equal consideration.
Although Christianity is a growing and prevalent religion in Hays County, it is important that members of the court show respect for all religions, regardless of their own personal beliefs. By only saying the Christian prayer during the opening invocation, individuals who might not hold the same religious beliefs are being left out. This is a serious concern that needs to be fixed.
According to information compiled by the County Information Program and Texas Association of Counties, the estimated population of Hays County in 2011 was 164,050. With the population becoming so large, the religious makeup in the area is diverse.
According to statistics from city-data.com, 2 percent of the community adheres to the Muslim faith, 2.3 percent follow the Mormon church, 1 percent are Presbyterians and another .2 percent believe in the Bahá’í faith. Together, there are more than 20 different practicing religions in Hays County.
The establishment clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from getting involved in religion. Although this means that church must be separate from state, it does not completely separate religion from the individuals who work in the public sector. Although citizens are allowed to inwardly carry their personal religious beliefs into public functions, a government entity must take care to treat all religious views equally.
According to a Sept. 26 University Star article, Judge Bert Cobb said the court as a whole would like to keep prayer in the court sessions. According to the Oct. 18 University Star article, Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for American United for Separation of Church and State, said his group is not advocating for an absence of prayer altogether, but for a push of nonsectarian prayer. Luchenitser does bring up a good point when he mentions that if a majority of ministers who lead prayers at the meetings are Christian, it would violate the establishment clause.
It is a move in the right direction for the court to allow a volunteer chaplain to organize the invocation and direct religious leaders from around the community to give prayers. It is vital the court truly makes sure a wide variety of representatives from religions in the area are brought in to lead the prayers. Additionally, the leaders will be allowed to use terminology essential to each of their religions. Through visits with local religious entities, volunteer chaplains could choose religious leaders based on their status within those institutions.
By ensuring that no religious view is favored over another and allowing different leaders from around the community to give the invocation, Hays County residents can expect change and equality in future commissioners court meetings.
—Molly Block is a mass communication junior.