Carroll prayer case opens separation of church and state debate in Maryland

A divided board of commissioners in Carroll County resolved Tuesday to say only non-denominational prayers before public meetings, likely ending a two-year legal battle.

The commissioners passed the resolution 3-2, despite objections from Commissioner Richard Rothschild that the measure was an affront to his Christian faith.

“Censorship is not freedom,” said Rothschild, who voted against the resolution along with Commissioner Robin Frazier. 

It’s common for local governments to open meetings with some sort of invocation or prayer—but less typical for officials to reference a particular religion or deity.

Until this week, Carroll County commissioners were a notable exception.

The American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Carroll County residents in 2012. Late last month, a federal judge issued an injunction prohibiting commissioners from opening meetings with prayer that references a particular religion while the lawsuit is pending.  

READ MORE: Maryland judge halts prayers at Carroll County board's meetings

A day later, Frazier began a budget meeting with a prayer by George Washington that mentioned Jesus. Frazier said she was willing to go jail over her right to say Jesus.

READ MORE: Despite ruling, Carroll County commissioner mentions Jesus

Roberta Windham, a spokesman for Carroll commissioners, said when the board took office in December 2010, they decided they wanted to open each meeting with a prayer. Commissioners took turns reciting the prayer.

It was the first time in years commissioners had opted to pray before meetings, Windham said.

“If it happened before, it was ancient history,” she said.

Past controversies

Controversy over public prayer is not new.

Last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case from Greece, N.Y., where town board meetings begin with a formal prayer. Until 2008, when two residents sued, the prayers were exclusively Christian.

Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the organization has been involved in about a half-dozen cases over the past decade.

In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled it’s constitutional to open a government meeting with a prayer, because of the principles on which the country was founded. But judges in subsequent court cases have ruled governments can’t endorse a particular religion through prayer.

“This decision should not have been all that surprising to the Carroll County board,” Lipper said.

According to the resolution, prayers before Carroll County commissioners’ meetings will be non-sectarian, but may include references to “God, Lord God, Creator, the Almighty, God of Abraham, Heavenly Father, Lord our Governor, Mighty God, Lord of Lords, Creator of the Earth, and Our Creator.’

The resolution states commissioners will continue this practice until the Supreme Court issues its ruling in the Greece case.

Two years ago, Americans United filed a complaint against the Brentwood Town Council in Prince George’s County for reciting the Lord’s Prayer before meetings. Council members agreed to stop reciting the prayer.

Americans United filed a similar case against the Sussex County, Del. council, which also agreed to stop saying the prayer.

Chip Guy, a spokesman for the Sussex County government, said officials agreed to recite the 23rd Psalm before meetings as a compromise and avoid a lengthy legal battle. A judge agreed the Old Testament reading was non-sectarian.

Guy said the council had been reciting the Lord’s Prayer since at least the 1970s, and people raised concerns about it from time to time.

“I wouldn’t say there had been a groundswell,” Guy said.

Monica Miller, a lawyer for the American Humanist Association, said the Carroll County suit was the group’s first lawsuit challenging legislative prayers. The association has filed briefs in support of other prayer-related cases.

Miller estimated the association has sent out about 15 letters to local governments over the last three years, warning them their prayers cross the line. The AHA has also filed three lawsuits over school prayer, two of which are pending. The other was resolved in favor of the AHA’s client.

Ingrained in tradition

In Baltimore City, council members take turns inviting someone from their district to give the invocation before each meeting.  Over the years, the council has hosted members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, as well as speakers not affiliated with a religion.

“We want to make sure we are representing all of the people of Baltimore,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council president Bernard “Jack” Young.

Davis said council members let the speaker know ahead of time they need to keep it non-sectarian.

“We make that clear,” he said, adding it’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember.

In Baltimore County, the council opens every meeting the same way—with a moment of silent meditation. After that, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, said Tom Peddicord, the council’s attorney.

Peddicord said

he’s been with the council for more than two decades, and the practice was around long before that. He can’t recall hearing any feedback about it one way or the other.

“It’s ingrained in our tradition,” Peddicord said. 

Anne Arundel County Council president John Grasso was outraged when he learned about the Carroll County case.

“This country was founded on Christianity. If you don’t like it, leave,” said Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican.

Those on the Anne Arundel County Council take turns giving the invocation before each meeting, and Grasso said they don’t follow any rules about what terminology they use.

“Personally, I say Heavenly Father, because that just sounds right,” Grasso said.

However, he added that might change.

“It’s freedom of expression,” Grasso said. “I might just have to say [Jesus Christ] out of spite at the next meeting.” 

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