Members of the Hays County, Texas, Commissioners Court are considering their options after receiving a letter from Americans United advising them that their practice of opening most sessions with Christian prayers is unconstitutional.
AU waded into the matter after a local resident contacted the organization to object to the court’s frequent use of sectarian prayers. AU’s Legal Department looked into the matter and decided to write to the commissioners.
“We write to inform you,” AU attorneys said, “that your prayer practice is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and ask that you bring your prayer practice into constitutional compliance by either ending the practice altogether or by revising your prayer policy to allow only nonsectarian prayer.”
AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told KTBC-TV, “The Constitution requires government bodies to be neutral between religions. Government bodies must not favor one religious group over another.”
The letter sparked a heated reaction from some local clergy and citizens. Several of them attended a meeting of the court to demand that the Christian prayers continue.
One resident, Terry Norris, told the American-Statesman, “It’s absolutely ludicrous to take a name, in this case Jesus, and make a bone of contention over it.”
Jonathan Saenz of the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Religious Right legal outfit, weighed in as well. Saenz said his organization would represent the county in any lawsuit for free.
Saenz also accused Americans United of having an anti-Christian agenda.
“Let’s be honest, we know what this is about,” he said. “These people don’t want the name of Jesus uttered.”
Hays County Judge Bert Cobb told the American-Statesman that the county is unsure what to do. He vowed that the court will “have an invocation, come what may.”
Cobb added, “We have to decide how to do it without being sued, before we spend taxpayer dollars fighting a suit that would probably be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars even if we prevail.”
The University Star, a newspaper published at Texas State University-San Marcos, editorialized in favor of replacing the Christian prayer with 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,” asserted the newspaper. “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.”