2 July 2018 at 10:49:18 AM
This morning I printed out the ACLU decision regarding the US Supreme Court declining to take on the 4th US Circuit of Appeals Case Lund v Rowan Co. This case is specifically about county commissioners offering prayer from the dais. The Appeals court ruled that the practice is unconstitutional. (in fact the full court of justices ruled this). Rowan County appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and that declination came in the other day. Thus, the decision that commissioners court elected officials offering prayer is unconstitutional stands. People of good will may agree or disagree with the decision, but the fact is that the practice by Rowan County has been ruled, by a court, to be unconstitutional.
That brings us to Somervell County (in Glen Rose, Texas). The practice of having prayers led by a county commissioner started when Danny Chambers was elected Somervell County Judge. There were no prayers at meetings before this. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in May 2014 that one could have prayer before government meetings but only if the prayers are not given by elected officials, don't discriminate against any faith (to include lack of faith atheists) and do not coerce people into prayer. As Town of Greece v Galloway said
It is an elemental First Amendment principle that government may not coerce its citizens "to support or participate in any religion or its exercise". ... The principle audience for these invocations is not, indeed, the public, but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing. The District Court in MARSH described the prayer exercise as an 'internal act' directed at the Nebraska Legislature's 'own members'. .. Toe be sure, many members of the public find these prayer meaningful and wish to join them..
The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for oppobrium,or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person's acquiescence in the prayer opportunity. ... Although board members themselves stood, bowed their heads, or made the sign of the cross during the prayer, they at no point solicited similar gestures by the public. Respondents point to several occasions where audience members were asked to rise for the prayer. These requests, however, came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way and might have done so thinking the action was inclusive, not coercive.... In the general course legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate. ... board members and constitutuents are 'free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons'. ..
So, what has Somervell County Commissioners Court been doing?
- Again, there were no invocations offered at govt meetings before Danny Chambers became judge
- Danny Chambers most of the time tells the commissioner to lead the audience "us" in prayer
- Most prayers are always offered by Larry Hulsey and always are a christian prayer, no exceptions.
- I asked, via email that Danny Chambers did not answer, to be able to offer an invocation, since, of course, the US Supreme Court ruled I could. He did not answer so I approached him in person after a meeting. He acknowledged that he had read them. He told me in person that he would do an open call into the audience to ask for volunteers. But, at the next meeting, rather than doing that, a local minister did the invocation from the audience, with Danny Chambers telling the minister to "lead us in prayer". I then sent Chambers another email on June 13, 2016 in which I asked what I needed to do to be able to give the invocation, since the minister had been able to. No reply, so I wrote him again on June 29, 2016. No reply. On July 11, 2016, another minister did the invocation, so I went up in person to ask Chambers afterward about this.
I told him I had sent him two emails without a reply and I felt that he was deliberately ignoring me. I am paraphrasing the conversation after this. I told him I wanted to do an invocation for the court. He told me he had created a list of religious entities that he has invited and atheists are not on it. He said he didn't want atheists doing the invocation because he was concerned they would make a mockery of the court. I said, no, that's not right, I would never do that.He said he didn't understand why atheists would want to do an invocation anyway since they don't believe in god. I told him an invocation of believers or unbelievers can be an expression ot good will and wishes to the commissioners court to make wise decisions. I then asked him yes or no. He said no. I said, well, I want you to know I am going to fight you on this. He said he wanted it made clear that it is an atheist wanting to do the invocation. I told him I was not hiding anything and am happy to do that.
Again, don't forget that the Supreme Court ruled that atheists should be included.
This morning, after I saw the results, I printed out copies of the ACLU press release, my post about Somervell County Commissioners Court record of unconstitutional prayer and the FFRF letter that had been sent to Andy Lucas previously. I took one set of copies to John Curtis, who is my county commissioner, in person, and took a second set to give to Danny Chambers personally in his office (7/2/2018). We had a civil conversation in which we both expressed our views. I believe strongly that if a particular practice is unconstitutional, then even if people have sincerely held beliefs, as an elected official sworn to uphold the constitution, it's Chambers job to elevate the job to that level. I told him that after he had a chance to review, if he goes back again to having invocations from the audience that I want to do one too and want him to tell me the procedure for that. Reasonable people, of course, can disagree about what should happen, including when superior courts rules, but a ruling stands. And the courts are now, by not taking the case at the US SCOTUS level creating a precedent that prayers offered by elected officials are not constitutional.
P.S. The fundamental constitutional position of doing invocations at a government meeting is also whether the invocations are being done exclusively without making the ability to offer them available to the public. In other words, once a government entity opens up proceedings for invocations, they cannot discriminate against others. Even if one argued about whether county commissioners can do prayers, the fact that they are exclusivily doing so is not only discrimination but unconstitutional.
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