It soon will be under threat.
At its next session this October, the U.S. Supreme Court will address the constitutionality of starting a governmental meeting with a prayer.
How it rules will affect entities ranging from the U.S. House and Senate down to the local Commissioners Court, the City Council, four school districts and a water board, just to name a few.
Anticipating the oral arguments before the high court, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with 22 other states arguing to ban invocations is “improper and contrary to the long-standing history and tradition of legislative prayer in the country.”
The case originates in Greece, New York, where a federal appeals court ruled in favor of two atheists and struck down the town’s practice of allowing citizens to offer a prayer at monthly meetings of the town board.
Abbott, who announced July 14 he is running for governor, says his brief argues that “Public acknowledgments of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding.”
The brief cites a 1983 high court ruling, March v Chambers, in which it upheld the constitutionality of a Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening every session with a clergy-led prayer.
“Such prayers,” the ruling stated, “are simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”
That the high court already has issued a ruling has prompted Abbott, in his brief, to ask the Supreme Court judges to “adopt a single Establishment Clause test that is clear, workable and faithful to the text and history of the First Amendment.”
In that amendment, the Constitution prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” hence the clause’s name.
The Legal Information Institute, based at the Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y., notes that “it is not clear just how much the Establishment Clause tolerates.”
In the past, it says, the Supreme Court has “permitted religious invocations to open legislative session, government funding of busing and textbooks for private religious schools, and efforts by school districts to arrange schedules to accommodate students’ extracurricular religious education programs. The Court has ruled against some overtly religious displays at courthouses, state funding supplementing teacher salaries at religious schools, and some overly religious holiday decorations on public land.”
The Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state is a “shifting, porous barrier,” says University of Missouri Law Professor Douglas Linder. “Small factual differences in cases often produce different outcomes.”
The First Amendment Center, a team of five legal experts at Vanderbilt University, stresses that “the clause is absolute. It allows no laws. It is also noteworthy that the clause forbids more than the establishment of religion by the government. It forbids even laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
It predicts, however, “for the foreseeable future a majority of justices will continue to view government neutrality toward religion as the guiding principle.”
“Prayer at government meetings, even where conducted with sensitivity to diversity, is controversial,” says Baptist Joint Committee General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman.
“While most religious people believe prayer is an important spiritual practice, that doesn’t mean they are united in how they pray or a willingness to have government-sponsored prayer.”
The committee, she says, thinks a moment of silence is “a better way to solemnize a government meeting. There are countless opportunities to pray for our elected officials and recognize the diversity of religions in any given community without conducting prayer in a governmental forum and risking the alignment of government with a particular religion.”
The BJC is a watchdog agency concerned with separation of church and state issues and policy.
“It would be a sad day if the court rules against the invocations because it goes against the very nature of the foundation of our country,” says County Judge David Silva, also a Baptist minister.
Beeville Mayor David Carabajal agrees.
“Prayer is essential in all walks of life,” he says. “I believe that God can help us through some of these difficult decisions and keep us balanced.”
BISD Board Chair Nick Cardenas says that history is on their side.
“As long as I have been on the board, we have been praying. We have to put God first. I don’t care if it’s the board meeting or at an athletic function or what. People are moving away from God too much, and this is what is causing a lot of the problems in the world.”
His counterpart at Coastal Bend College, Paul Jaure, views the provincial environment of a South Texas college as no longer a defense. “I know there’s been a lot of controversy about it, but you always expect that to happen there, not here.”
He predicts the Supreme Court will “leave it up to the individual institutions to do what they feel is correct.”
When asked what he would do if the court banned invocations, Silva said he would comply.
Carabajal says he will continue to start City Council meetings with prayer, regardless of what the high court decides. “You see it in our currency, ‘In God We Trust.’ To rule against it is not considering our rights.”
“Personally, I would want to defy it,” Silva said. “But again, I represent the county. I would have to uphold the law. We are a nation of laws.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.