It’s time to stop Houston City Council prayers

Most of the longtime readers of this publication will be familiar with how I, as well as everyone else affiliated with Texpatriate, first got my start in local politics. For three years throughout High School, I served with 33 other young people in an organization called the Mayor’s Youth Council. We would meet in Council chambers a few times a month, after hours, and debate the pertinent issues of the day in a way that mirrored the real City government. This included the agenda itself, complete with ordinances, pop-off debates and introductory pleasantries. These pleasantries included the pledge of allegiance and a prayer. Ostensibly, the prayer should have been non-sectarian, but given that each member of the Council would receive an opportunity to participate, many had inherently Christian messages. The very same thing happens at the Houston City Council. Of course, this is where the similarity ended.

Under the stewardship of a few people, namely Luis Fayad (the Mayor-equivalent of the MYC my first year and a current Texpatriate Editorial Board member), the prayers were removed from youth council proceedings. As you might imagine, individuals in the Mayor’s office had some fairly strong words for us as a result of our new policy. But we proceeded with it nonetheless. The world did not end because the church had to stop its influence at the town hall’s doors. In fact, the protections of religious liberty from our Constitution were made all the stronger because of it. It is past time for the Houston City Council and the Mayor to follow suit.

Ironically enough, the constitutionality of this miscarriage of justice is likely in a much stronger position today than it was in 2009 when my contemporaries first challenge the procedure. Last year, the Supreme Court held 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that a local municipality did not transgress the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment by holding sectarian prayers. However, more than a constitutional or legal point, these prayers should be done away with from a moral point of view.

Thomas Jefferson said it best that there should be “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Obviously, when a City Councilmember or the Mayor in their official capacity espouse religious rhetoric, the wall has not just been breached, but totally leveled.

One of the arguments used in Town of Greece to argue for the prayer’s illegality was that a City Council is quite different from, say, a State Legislature because of the inherent differences in the ways those bodies do business. Whereas a State Legislature simply meets and deliberates lawmaking, a City Council has tons of direct interaction with townspeople. Thus, Greece’s prayer, they argued, was directed at the entire town instead of just a pseudo-private interaction between individual lawmakers.

While the Supreme Court was not persuaded by that argument legally speaking, I still find it hard to argue against on a right/wrong level. When a City such as Houston has a Christian-themed prayer before an official meeting of its City Council, it inherently says that it is endorsing Christianity to its citizens.

Now, perhaps you would argue that there is nothing wrong with the government endorsing Christianity. Or, more expansively, merely endorsing religion over irreligion. The problem with this is that it goes against the multi-century history of this country. The faux religious influences in public life, such as “In God We Trust” on money or “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, have not been around since time immemorial. Despite the claims of historical revisionists, both were only added in the 1950s.

Both the church and the state work immensely better when they are separated from one another. When, as Jefferson suggested, a great wall is erected between them, they can both work without outside adulterations. Stopping prayers, especially those of a sectarian nature, from occurring within the walls of City Hall would be great start.

For whatever reason, those advocating for the entanglement of church and state have always resorted to name-calling in order to demonstrate their point. I’ll likely be called Godless or Anti-Religion for espousing these points of view, when, in reality, I am neither. As a Jew, I have never subscribed to the ludicrous point of view that my religion should be thrust upon everyone else. The same should go for the belief in God or of any organized religion whatsoever. It’s an important part of my life, but it should have no place in the seat of government. It just shouldn’t.

I have attended a broad array of parochial schools in my life. St. Regis (Catholic), St. Stephen’s (Episcopalian) and Emery/Weiner (Jewish) come to mind rather immediately. All of those schools combined some element of religious classes with either mass, chapel or Jewish prayer sessions. Growing up, my Mother would often wish to pray before eating, a custom which is still mandatory among functions with my extended family. I never have had, nor do I now, any problem with any of these influences in my life. If I ever have children, I will even likely seek these religious influences out as invaluable facets of the child’s upbringing. But none of them should be in the public square. For, just as easily as my family may have had our specific religious persuasion, other family could have their own. Still others could choose to observe no religious instruction or influence. The beauty of the United States is that we are free to pursue our religious goals ourselves, independent from an encroaching, burdensome government.

As Justice Robert H. Jackson, a devout Anglican, wrote in a 1950s dissent on religious instruction during the school day: “My evangelistic brethren confuse an objection to compulsion with an objection to religion. It is possible to hold a faith with enough confidence to believe that what should be rendered to God does not need to be decided by Caesar.” And as Justice William Brennan said in his famous dissent to Marsh v. Chambers, the aforementioned case from 30 years ago that upheld legislative prayer, “If the Court had struck down legislative prayer today, it would likely have stimulated a furious reaction. But it would also, I am convinced, have invigorated both the ‘spirit of religion’ and the ‘spirit of freedom.'” Here’s for that spirit of freedom!

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