LEAGUE CITY, Tex. – An atheist activist group is fighting to have legislative prayers banned from a Texas city’s council meetings, a tradition that dates back to the 1960’s.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is a Wisconsin-based organization committed to “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church.” Last week, FFRF mailed a letter to the mayor and council members of League City, which is a Texas city of 85,000 located southeast of Houston. The letter, obtained by the organization Texas Values, demands that League City officials stop allowing prayers before 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,” the 3-page letter states. “The best solution is for [the] Council to drop these prayers altogether.”
The letter goes on to build a legal argument against the city by citing various court cases, and even cites Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 to pray in private. Ultimately, FFRF argues in the letter that legislative prayers fly in the face of the United States’ founding values.
“America was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom from government imposition of religion,” the letter reads. “The framers who wrote our Constitution understood that religious liberty cannot exist without the freedom to dissent. They founded our nation on a godless Constitution. … We were the first nation to adopt a secular constitution, investing sovereignty in ‘We the People,’ not a divine entity. We invented the separation of state and church. Significantly, there was no prayer during the Constitutional Convention. Surely if the framers did not need prayer to write the document that founded our nation, the Council can successfully conduct its business without prayer as well.”
According to local Houston affiliate KPRC, League City administrators have regularly held prayers in council meetings for the past 52 years. The agenda for the council’s Tuesday meeting shows that—immediately following the call to order and roll call—the tradition is to have an “invocation,” followed by pledges of allegiance to the U.S. and Texas flags. Customarily, the prayers are led by local religious leaders.
Though FFRF claims on their website that this type of legislative prayer is “inappropriate and coercive,” League City leaders state that they are standing firm in defending their decades-old tradition. Mayor Tim Paulissen told local affiliate KTRH that “unless a judge or someone with a higher authority tells me to stop, we are not going to change.”
The mayor also reaffirmed his determination in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
“The city has been doing this since 1962, and nobody has ever complained, to my knowledge,” he stated. “It’s not just my stance. I have the full support of those on the city council, too. … It’s not a waste of taxpayers’ money. Everybody supports the prayer.”
The League City controversy is certainly not the first time FFRF has challenged legislative prayer. As previously reported, FFRF representatives recently urged members of a county commission in Tennessee to stop facilitating similar public invocations. However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals largely rebutted the anti-prayer argument in an opinion released on Friday, saying such legislative prayer is “constitutional on its face.”
“The [U.S.] Senate and House elected their first chaplains in 1789,” the judge wrote. “As the Supreme Court explained, ‘[i]t can hardly be thought that in the same week Members of the First Congress voted to appoint and to pay a Chaplain for each House and also voted to approve the draft of the First Amendment’ that ‘they intended the Establishment Clause of the Amendment to forbid what they had just declared acceptable.’ The Supreme Court concluded that, ‘[i]n light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society.’”