LEAGUE CITY — A Wisconsin based nonprofit, Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to Mayor Tim Paulissen asking that League City stop the practice of having a prayer before city council meetings.
“Government prayers exclude a significant portion of Americans from the democratic process, are of dubious legality and are a repudiation of our secular history,” wrote Elizabeth Cavell, a staff attorney for the foundation.
But Paulissen said the prayer, which appears on the council agenda just before the Pledge of Allegiance, is something that’s occurred at the start of council meetings for as long as he can remember.
“Unless a judge or somebody tells me otherwise, we are going to continue doing as we have been doing,” Paulissen said.
A common occurrence
In Galveston County, it is not uncommon for a city council meeting to begin with a prayer.
While the city of Kemah has a moment of silence, officials from Galveston to Friendswood and cities in between all said meetings begin with a prayer led by church leaders or by council members.
Paulissen said he did not think the prayer at city council meetings violated the principle of separation of church and state. And while Paulissen said in his recollection, the religious leaders giving the prayer have been Christian, the city was open to having other religious organizations from the area lead the invocation.
“I am a proponent of doing the prayer,” he said. “I don’t see a problem with it.”
In her letter, Cavell said League City’s prayers before meetings was divisive and “coercive and beyond the authority of any government.”
The foundation, which has almost 20,000 members nationwide and about 900 in Texas, sends similar letters and requests to government bodies across the country, Cavell said. Foundation officials got involved in League City because local members asked them to, she said.
Cavell said rather than subjecting everyone at a meeting to the prayer, the council could have a moment of silence or a council member could pray on his or her own before the meeting.
“They do not need to worship on the taxpayers’ time,” she wrote.
Cavell quoted Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in her appeal to the mayor.
She also quoted the Bible: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others … When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen.”
An uncomfortable topic
Peter Linzer, a constitutional law professor at the University of Houston, said the Supreme Court had gone back and forth on the issue and had drawn some fine distinctions.
“In a nutshell, the (U.S. Supreme Court) has been very uncomfortable with this whole question for the last 30 years,” he said.
Certain practices, such as prayers at football games or public school graduations, have been found unconstitutional, but at other times, courts have upheld such things as allowing a Ten Commandments monument to be displayed on state capitol grounds, he said.
The Supreme Court will take another stab at deciding the issue of prayer at city council meetings when the case of Galloway v. Town of Greece reaches the justices next year.