Nontheist, Atheist, Humanist

How Austin, Texas, Is Promoting Religious Freedom

  Liz Hayes

As we prepare to celebrate our American freedoms this Independence Day, it’s a pleasure to report on some public officials who are taking religious freedom, equality and fairness seriously. I’m looking at Austin, Texas, where city council meetings are about to get even more inclusive, thanks to changes to the council’s invocation policy.

Austin already had a pretty good record of welcoming people of diverse beliefs to deliver invocations during council meetings. Members of a half-dozen Christian denominations plus Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Baha’is and representatives of the Texas Army National Guard and the Shambhala Meditation Center have offered prayers in the last year, according to the Austin-based Statesman newspaper. In 2017, a priestess from Tejas Web, an “eclectic ecofeminist Witchcraft community,” delivered an invocation, and a member of the Satanic Temple was on the schedule in 2016 but backed out.

But Austin Mayor Steve Adler plans to open the invocation space even further by not “limit[ing] our opening moment to prayers, but also to include opportunities for short poetry, meditation, moments of silence, etc.,” Adler wrote on a message board to council members, according to the Statesman. “We will still be together quietly and thoughtfully.”

Adler also won’t make people stand for these opening remarks, he wrote.

“Adler said on the message board that he would hate for someone to walk into a single council meeting, without context, and think the members are endorsing a particular religion — or religion itself,” the Statesman reported.

To explain the practice to unaware attendees, Adler plans to introduce a disclaimer about the council’s intent to “start our meetings with a peaceful moment by inviting different people from walks of life and different faiths to share their prayers or moments of reflection … [and] to begin our meetings with everyone focused and aligned for the greater good.”

Austin joins other Texas communities that have tried to make their invocation practices more reflective of their communities’ diverse beliefs in recent years. Thanks to the advocacy of Americans United members, El Paso City Council and County Commissioners and San Antonio Council all have made great strides toward more inclusive invocations, which make for more inclusive public meetings.

Perhaps these Texan communities’ good intentions will rub off on another group of government officials who meet in Austin – the state legislature. Statesman columnist Ken Herman recently addressed his concerns over the proselytizing nature of some invocations delivered during sessions of the state legislature, despite House guidelines that invocations should aim to be “non-sectarian.” He was particularly troubled by a Christian pastor who offered a prayer in May that repeatedly encouraged attendees to know Jesus: “Heavenly father, I pray that the men and women here that know your great love are living by faith in Jesus.”

“I can’t pinpoint the precise line of demarcation between praying and preaching, but this sounded like preaching in a place where it’s inappropriate and uninvited,” Herman wrote. “A brief nonsectarian prayer promoting civility and tolerance? Sure, can’t hurt, despite that important separation of church and state thing in the Constitution. But if [this] Texas House prayer was nonsectarian I’ll eat my yarmulke.”

The prayer was reminiscent of a Christian invocation offered by a Pennsylvania freshman legislator in March. The prayer from Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton County) was controversial not only because of its proselytizing nature, but also because it occurred on the day when a new Muslim representative was sworn into office – timing that some viewed to be intentional.

Borowicz’s inappropriate prayer isn’t the only problem the Pennsylvania House has when it comes to invocations: Americans United is challenging the state House’s policy of refusing to allow nontheists to offer invocations. That’s unconstitutional religious discrimination and AU is fighting it in court on behalf of a number of nontheist Pennsylvanians who were turned away on the basis of their religious beliefs.

AU is also challenging a similar policy of the Brevard County, Fla., Commissioners that discriminates against nontheists, and we have fought other government prayer practices that discriminate against or show favoritism for certain religious beliefs.

Because government meetings represent key opportunities for the public to address elected officials, they should be welcoming environments for all members of a community. If officials open these meetings with invocations, ensuring that they are inclusive, don’t proselytize and don’t disparage other faiths goes a long way toward creating a space that welcomes everyone.

The freedoms of religion, speech, assembly and petitioning the government are some of the core First Amendment principles we’ll be celebrating this week. But it’s incumbent that our public officials honor and facilitate these freedoms all year long. Americans United is committed to protecting religious freedom every day – join us!

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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