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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Tony Morris, 1950-2014

This afternoon, Tony Morris passed away just days after his 64th birthday, following a long battle with cancer.

Anyone who does not know who Tony Morris was obviously not paying enough attention to Houston city politics. He has been a fixture at City Hall for more than 30 years, since the Mayoralty of Kathy Whitmire and throughout the four administrations that followed. An independent freelancing photojournalist, he worked with Houston Style Magazine and many other respected publications throughout his tenure, as well as provided photography for the City in certain situations. He was perhaps most renowned among the general public for his larger-than-life presence in the press section of the City Council chambers, as well as his often flamboyant sartorial selections. However, fewer people had the privilege of actually getting to know Mr Morris, his unmatched kindness & patience or his fantastic political acumen. In fact, I had the pleasure of getting to know him from a number of different perspectives. First as a City employee, but also as a member of the press corps; not to mention interactions with him on the campaign trail with my father last year.

But my very first interaction with Mr Morris occurred before any of that, when I was just a 15 year old with an audacious plan to address the City Council during public session. I had never been to a City Council meeting before, and was quite unfamiliar with the entire procedure. Kindly and patiently, Mr Morris walked me through everything that would happen, and the typical protocol of what I should do when I approached the lectern at my turn to speak.

That speech lead to me working at City Hall for the remainder of High School, through the Mayor’s Youth Council program. Once again, Mr Morris was a regular attendant to our events, and even volunteered his photography skills to us when no one else from the City would document the important tasks we accomplished. He was, with perhaps one exception, the only member of the City Hall press corps to ever see what the young people were up to. I have a picture of Mayor Annise Parker and me, standing behind the Mayor’s seat at the council horseshoe that Mr Morris took, it’s still framed and hanging on my wall. Heck, I think he took my Senior Yearbook Photo too!

Mr Morris understood the value of young people in politics in a way that, admittedly, many members of the City Council at that time simply did not. He approached every person with whom he conversed the same. Young or old, black or white, powerful or not, he gave you the utmost respect and attention, yet again in a way that many elected officials could learn therefrom.

But it was only last Autumn, when my father was running his campaign for the City Council At-large #5, that I truly discovered the local treasure that was Mr Morris’ nearly unmatched acuity in local politics. He engaged us over why my dad was running, and why not support the incumbent. We must have talked to close to an hour, and I must concede that he bested me on a few points of discussion. While his sheer intellect was indubitably very impressive, Mr Morris possessed an unmatched wisdom in City politics perhaps only matched by the City Secretary herself. He was able to see the long story in a way most others can’t –and never will.

City Council meetings, simply put, will just never me the same without Mr Morris. His role transcended that of the press, of spectator or even of longtime observer. He carved out a new place on Bagby Street, just for him, a unique legacy for an inimitable man.

A Chair’s race at the TDP

Via the inbox. Rachel Van Os, a local party activist who most recently ran unsuccessfully for Chair of the Texas Democratic Party in 2012, has pledged to throw her hat in the ring once more. Later this month, the State Democratic Convention will be held in Dallas. Incumbent Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, first elected in 2012, will run for re-election to a second term.

“It’s time we take back Texas and take back the reins of power from the rich and powerful who solely care about themselves and care nothing about the middle class or underprivileged,” Van Os said in her recent announcement. Longtime followers will remember Van Os’ husband, David Van Os, as a staple of local Austin politics as well as a three time candidate for Statewide office (Supreme Court in 1998 and 2004, Attorney General in 2006). Chairman Hinojosa, for his part, previously served in a plethora of roles in his native Cameron County (Brownsville), including County Judge, Court of Appeals Justice and County Party Chair.

Accordingly, the Chair’s fight at the 2014 Convention is shaping up to be strangely reminiscent of the 2012 contest. In that race, of course, Hinojosa scored a decisive victory against Van Os. In the nearly two years since, he has presided over a State party that has made ever-so-slight gains in the State Legislature, was well as been shot to stardom following the Wendy Davis filibuster. The strongest Democratic slate in many cycles was recruited for 2014, though funding that slate has turned out to be easier said than done. All in all, noticeable improvement has occurred since 2012.

Click here to read why I will be supporting Hinojosa!

Civil Affairs: Pragmatism

CIVIL AFFAIRS

For those who did not hear, I was on television last night. Specifically, on the program “Red, White and Blue” on the local PBS affiliate. Among the many topics that we discussed was just how the Statewide Democratic slate might do well in November. Jay Aiyer, a law professor at Texas Southern University and one of my fellow panelists, opined that Democrats should move to the center and embrace causes typically not associated with contemporary liberalism. As you may have noticed if you watched the program, I also suggested that some embrace of social issues, specifically gay rights and abortion, might end up benefiting the Democrats. I also noted that Aiyer’s suggestion and mine were not necessarily mutually exclusive, as evident by a political persona such as Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo, the Governor of New York, is likely the type of Democrat that candidates in Texas should strive to emulate. Unapologetic in his embrace of liberal social positions, though overwhelmingly business friendly, Cuomo has marked out of position on the political spectrum that transcends the typical constraints of dichotomous opposition.  Most important of all, Cuomo possesses a trait that I call “ruthless pragmatism,” not necessarily in the style of Frank Underwood, but maintaining a healthy alacrity to changing issues and conventions nonetheless.

However, a true of pet peeve of mine would be when the idea of pragmatism is misused or otherwise adulterated by someone who is just weak willed. Not to be too cliche, but the word is defined as practically, realistically or otherwise sensibly dealing with issues. Pragmatism is not tantamount to equivocation. Just because something might be popular does not mean that it is necessarily pragmatic, particularly if there are other negative implications.

Click here to see how this all connects with the Statewide elections!

Memorial Day

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My grandfather served in World War II, being part of a unit that landed on Omaha Beach and suffered very heavy losses. His two brothers also fought, serving in the South Pacific and fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal. However, this holiday is not about them; they all survived the war.  Memorial Day is about those who give the ultimate sacrifice –their life– in the service of their country. It is about the men who served as the namesake for my father and, by extension, my nephew. My grandfather had multiple friends in the service named James, all of whom died when their company scaled the gigantic cliffs at the end of the Normandy beachhead.

The holiday is also about more than those who died on the battlefield. Those who return home with untreated ailments that prove ultimately fatal should be memorialized as well, just as vigorously. These include physical ailments, such as lymphoma from exposure to Agent Orange, and mental ailments, such as post traumatic stress order shell shock from traumatic experiences that often leads to suicide. The rate of suicide among recent veterans has jumped 44% in recent years alone, being one of the biggest unaddressed issues facing today’s veterans.

This is only compounded by the recent scandal at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Forget about assigning winners and losers, or ascribing blame. How about, just today, our top priority be to lessen the suffering of those who have put everything on the line for the good of their countrymen. Veterans should transcend the politics behind wars; they are the brave young men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives for country. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a supporter of the Iraq War in any way, shape or form, but believe that the veterans created by that conflict should be taken care of as one of our biggest national priorities. Those who lost their lives in the conflict should be revered as strongly as any other serviceman.

Click here to read more, including today’s relevance for tomorrow!

Voting recap

 

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Photo courtesy of Greg Enos, Esq.

Yesterday, I went to early vote at West Gray, in the heart of Montrose. I ran into Alicia Franklin and Tonya McLaughlin, two Republicans running in primary runoffs for judicial elections; both have been Texpatriate-endorsed. Unfortunately, I could not vote for either of these well-qualified candidates, as I had voted in the preliminary Democratic primary and thus was required to vote in the Democratic runoff.

Accordingly, I voted for David Alameel in the US Senate runoff and Kinky Friedman in the Agriculture Commissioner runoff. I got the feeling that I may have been the first Democrat to vote there all day. Considering that there was not a single sign for a Democratic candidate, perhaps I was not too far off, though I did hear that representatives of the Houston GLBT Caucus were present today handing out their slate card (consisting of the single endorsement of Alameel).

Click here to read about the phantom Pratt signs!

Summer plans

Some of us will be working in Houston, some going abroad, but however this group will disperse, we will continue striving to bring Houston & Texas political news and commentary. At this time, however, we would like to discuss two specific political opportunities undertaken by members of this board.

First, George Bailey, the Bostonian of the Editorial Board (& a native Houstonian) has accepted a summer position in the office of Senator Ted Cruz, in Washington D.C. Accordingly, at this time George will refrain from writing anything on Sen. Cruz, and will abstain from any pertinent editorials on those subjects.

Second, Noah M. Horwitz, who is spending an extended summer in Houston this year, has accepted an offer to work on public relations and marketing issues with the Clifford Group. Some of these issues may be hot-button political topics that otherwise would receive coverage on Texpatriate. Accordingly, Noah will not write on any topics he is consulting on and will abstain from editorials on those topics as well.