February 2018 Church & State | Featured

Persistence, well-researched arguments and respectful face-to-face interactions with elec­ted officials have paid off for Americans United’s Join Us For Justice chapter in El Paso, Tex­as, as it works to keep public meetings inclusive.

Late last year, members of the chapter were successful in convincing county commissioners to oppose a policy to begin their public meetings with invocations. The chapter was concerned after reviewing the proposed policy in the fall.

“It was terrible,” said David Marcus, the founder and president of the chapter. “There was all kinds of stuff in there that violated every tenet of Greece v. Galloway.”

Marcus was referring to the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Town of Greece, N.Y., to continue opening its meetings with predominantly Christian invocations after a challenge brought by residents represented by Americans United. The residents felt Greece’s prayer policy wasn’t inclusive and coerced meeting attendees to participate in religious exercise. Although the high court allowed the invocations to continue, its 5-4 opinion made it clear that government bodies can’t have invocations that discriminate on the basis of religion.

“If a government body does open its meetings with invocations, there are several key rules it must follow to comply with the Constitution and respect the diversity of its citizens,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate legal director. “First, government bodies must not discriminate based on religion in selecting people to deliver invocations, and they must permit people who do not believe in God to deliver nontheistic invocations. Second, governmental officials must not coerce audience members to take part in prayers. Third, opening invocations must not proselytize or disparage any faith or nonbelief. Finally, government officials should avoid giving opening prayers themselves, and should instead invite private citizens to do so.”

AU’s El Paso chapter is very familiar with the Greece decision and its implications – later that same year, the chapter successfully petitioned El Paso’s city council to make its longstanding meeting invocations more inclusive. After working with city leaders, Marcus delivered a secular invocation during a December 2014 council meeting. Marcus believes it may have been one of the first secular invocations delivered at a government meeting in all of Texas.

So, when Marcus and the chapter got word that El Paso County’s Commissioners’ Court was thinking about implementing invocations, Join Us for Justice members were ready to mobilize.

After contacting AU staff to get a sample policy that outlines how to include invocations in an inclusive manner that complies with the Greece decision, chapter members began requesting personal meetings with the four commissioners and the county judge (a position somewhat akin to a mayor, and the fifth voting member of the commissioners’ court).

Marcus and Cesar R. Rivera, vice president of Join Us for Justice, said the personal meetings with county officials and the presentations board members gave at two public meetings all were well received.

“Through all of this, they were all really nice. No one was ever really nasty to us or displayed any hostility to us,” Rivera said. “They were willing to listen.”

That included Carlos Leon, the commissioner who had proposed the invocation policy. Marcus noted that Leon and other commissioners were willing to modify the invocation policy to bring it more in line with AU’s recommendations – which was the chapter’s goal if they couldn’t get the commissioners to nix the invocations altogether.

Vincent Perez, the other commissioner who voted for invocations, canceled the personal meeting with Join Us for Justice, although he did accept the information the chapter submitted.

Marcus and Rivera said the other two commissioners and county judge were much more receptive. All three referenced their Christian faith and belief in prayer, but said they understood how invocations at public meetings could be divisive.

“I’m Catholic myself, and I believe in the power of prayer and I find comfort in prayer, but I also have concerns with us putting forth a policy such as this because I also believe in the separation of church and state,” Commissioner David Stout said at the Nov. 16 public meeting.  He referenced a study showing that 40 percent of El Paso residents may not affiliate with any religion. “That’s quite a large amount, in my opinion, and I can definitely see members of the community being against something like this.”

Commissioner Andrew Haggerty, the court’s lone Republican, offered a strong argument against invocations at the Nov. 16 public meeting.

“We’re giving someone a microphone and giving them the opportunity to say whatever they want, where it could be disparaging, which could completely go against everything that we’re trying to do. I think we’re opening ourselves up for, if nothing else, it could take away from what we’re trying to do – and what we’re trying to do is government business,” Haggerty said.

“I go to church every Sunday, I pray every Sunday. I don’t need the government’s help telling me when and where to pray,” he added. “If you want to pray, pray. If you don’t, don’t. ... For people who want prayer, we’re watering [the invocation policy] down to where it’s not prayer. For the people [who] don’t want prayer, it’s still there and it’s still going to make them unhappy. You’re still going to have groups that want to come and speak, and it’s going to upset other groups.”

From the AU chapter’s private meetings with county officials, they knew the decision would come down to County Judge Ruben John Vogt’s vote. Marcus said Vogt, who had just been appointed to the position about a month earlier, told them he didn’t favor invocations but was concerned about how constituents would react.

“We really didn’t know how he was going to vote and knew he was going to break the tie,” Marcus said.

In the end, Vogt led the commissioners’ court in voting 3-2 against invocations.

“I struggled with this decision,” Vogt said before his vote at the Dec. 11 meeting. “I too am religious. I’ve struggled with what place an invocation has in our work environment and in our county government and in our daily business. In my trying to identify a way to provide the court and the public and our employees a moment to reflect, I couldn’t help but think [of] the ways in which it could actually create a hardship. It could make individuals feel vulnerable, perhaps uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t want to force this to be a part of any individual’s daily routine.”

Noting that the invocations were meant to be solemnizing words of encouragement aimed at commissioners, several of the county leaders suggested they could consider praying privately or having a moment of silence, either individually or as a group, before meetings instead. No action was taken on those suggestions.

Marcus and Rivera were pleased with the results. Marcus said the chapter used several of the grass-roots organizing strategies discussed at a training session that was organized over the summer by AU Faith Outreach Coordinator Bill Mefford.

“Pick the windmills you want to fight because you’re going to burn everybody out if you take on everything.… There are so many issues you could fight. We were pretty confident we could at least make a good showing with the invocation issue,” Marcus said. “Stay calm, be prepared, don’t try and change the world, don’t be overly aggressive and get into a fight. If you have other people working with you, listen to them and listen to their advice.”

Rivera said the support of several of the El Paso commissioners – including a conservative and devout Christians – was reassuring and demonstrated that church-state separation is not just an issue advanced by atheists, agnostics and other nontheists. He encouraged activists to reach out even to those who, on the surface, may not seem like they would be allies.

Mefford lauded the chapter’s efforts: “The excellent work by the El Paso chapter to prevent possible  discrimination in their county commission meetings is a tremendous example of effective community organi­zing. The chap­ter identified the concrete change they wanted to see, named their goal and listed the steps they needed to take to achieve it. And they won!

“I am so encouraged by not only what they accomplished, but how,” Mefford added. “I believe this can be a powerful example for all of our chapters in our collective work to ensure religious freedom for all people.”