Hays County Commissioners Court alters prayer policy after complaint

Hays County commissioners appointed their first court chaplain Oct. 23.

The Rev. Gary Smith, a former Air Force chaplain and the pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in San Marcos, is tasked with randomly selecting religious leaders from throughout Hays County to lead the invocations that begin Commissioners Court meetings each Tuesday.

Before Smith's appointment, County Judge Bert Cobb had led the weekly prayer. Cobb relinquished his invocation duties in response to a national group's complaint that by invoking the name of Jesus Christ, Cobb was violating the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

"The commissioners were committed to keeping prayer in the court, but they were also equally committed to doing it right, in a way that is inclusive, multi-sectarian and as diverse as possible," Smith said.

In addition to pastors of Christian churches, Smith said he has asked a Muslim leader to pray before the court, and he intends to offer an invitation to members of Hays County's Hindu community.

A lawyer for the Washington, D.C.–based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sent the complaints to Cobb in April and June, said his group was somewhat disappointed by Hays County's decision but would wait to see how the new policy is implemented.

"We believe the Constitution prohibits any sectarian prayers at the openings of government meetings, and that's the majority opinion among the courts. There are some cases that suggest that what [Hays County] ended up doing might be considered permissible, but that will really depend on how they implement it," said Alex Luchenitser, Americans United's associate legal director.

"If it's a Christian prayer 99 out of 100 times, then they have one token Jew or one token Muslim per year, it sends a message of favoritism of the Christian religion. If there are a truly diverse array of prayer givers and prayers not dominated by one faith, then that's less likely to impose constitutional problems," he added.

Commissioners drafted their new policy with help from the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based group that advocates for Christian religious freedom.

"We have done what I feel like is a reasonable job of preserving our constitutional rights as well as our freedom of speech," Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant said Oct. 23, shortly before the Commissioners Court voted unanimously to change its prayer policy.