Hays County leaders approach compromise over prayer

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on October 9, 2012 at 6:28 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 9 at 6:40 PM

SAN MARCOS, Texas -- For years, meetings of the Hays County commissioner's court have opened with a prayer.

"Creator of order and law, we are grateful to be alive today on this celestial ball called Earth," began the invocation at Tuesday's meeting in San Marcos, an invocation from which one name was conspicuously absent -- Jesus.

"We respect and give place to each faith community we represent," the invocation continued. "Muslims, Buddhist, Christians and hundreds of other communities of faith in our county, state and nation. We are still working on this after 200 years."

Earlier this year, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to county leaders from its Washington, D.C. base of operations, ultimately threatening legal action over Christian prayers it argued violated the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The clause states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and serves as the constitutional basis of the idea of the separation of church and state.

"We think the better practice is something like a moment of silence," Americans United for Separation of Church and State senior litigation counsel Gregory Lipper told KVUE by phone. "Because even choosing a non-denominational prayer serves to exclude those who simply don't practice a religion or don't believe in God."

Many Hays County residents say they never thought of prayer as a problem.

"The prayer at the beginning is a normal procedure," said longtime Hays County resident Margaret Paine. "That's part of our community, part of our culture, and I can't imagine anyone objecting to a prayer."

Hays County residents voiced virtually unanimous support for the prayer at a public comment hearing in September. County Judge Bert Cobb says the county is working on a compromise which would allow the county to keep the invocation prayer while avoiding potentially costly legal trouble. The hope is to have a plan in place for possible action at the next meeting of the commissioner's court.

"As you know, we've spent the last two weeks in deliberation on this issue. What we're trying to do is to come up with a proclamation that protects the rights of our citizens and also complies with the constitutional provisions that we have set forth," said Cobb. "Today we worked on the nitty-gritty details. Before we present it to the public, we'd like to make sure that we've got all the 'Ts'
crossed and the 'I's' dotted so that we can put this to rest."

It's a solution that seems to address at least the legal argument. Lipper said while he hadn't heard Tuesday's prayer or any of the proposed changes to the invocation prayer rules, adopting a more non-denominational approach would likely be a legally acceptable strategy.

"Our preference would certainly be to not have any prayer at all, out of recognition of the fact that not all American citizens and not everyone who lives in this county have a religion or believe in God," explained Lipper. "That said, the Supreme Court has made a very narrow exception to legislative meetings."

"We're a pretty accepting group of people here," explained Paine, who believes Hays County residents would warmly welcome invocations conducted by members of diverse faiths. "We are increasingly becoming more varied in people's ideas and ways of thinking, and I think we're accepting and open."

It's an issue county leaders will be glad to finally resolve.

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