CARROLL COUNTY, Md. — The Carroll County Board of Commissioners recently voted to settle a lawsuit filed by a nationally-recognized humanist group on behalf of residents who took issue with the board’s practice of presenting Christian prayers at public meetings. Despite input from those who wanted to retain the prayers, the settlement was reached to avoid the costs of potentially losing as taxpayer funds would be used to pay the humanist organization.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed suit against the board in 2013 as four local residents — identified as consisting of both humanists and Catholics — took issue with the prayers presented by commissioners and asserted that they violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The invocations at that point had been presented for the past three years, and rotated through the five members of the board. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Bruce Hake, told the Carroll County Times last month that he opposed the “ostentatious right-wing evangelical-style prayers because they’re hostile to my own Christian faith” as a Roman Catholic.
“”[T]he Supreme Court has made clear the general principle that the ‘First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State’ and that ‘this wall must be kept high and impregnable,'” AHA’s motion for a preliminary injunction read. “To do so, ‘the Constitution mandates that the government must remain secular.’ Religion, on the other hand, ‘must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice,’ not the state.”
In March 2014, U.S. District Court Judge William D. Quarles, Jr., who was nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush, issued an injunction against the practice, writing, “[T]he record indicates that the prayers invoked by commissioners before board meetings advance one religion to the exclusion of others” as there is a “lack of reference to other deities.”
“The public interest will be served by enjoining the board from its unconstitutional practice of allowing repeated sectarian references in its legislative prayers,” he opined.
One commissioner, Robin Frazier, refused to stop praying the name of Jesus, remarking that she was willing to even go to jail for her faith.
“[I]f we cease to believe that our rights come from God, we cease to be America,” she declared at a budget meeting. “We’ve been told to be careful. But we’re going to be careful all the way to Communism if we don’t start standing up and saying ‘no.’”
In 2016, both the county and AHA filed a motion for summary judgment. A year later, while the matter was still pending, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — which covers Maryland — ruled against the predominantly Christian prayers of Rowan County, Virginia commissioners. The U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to take up an appeal, leaving circuits divided on the matter.
The new Board of Commissioners also began presenting a moment of silence instead of the traditional prayer practice.
On Aug. 29, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to settle the lawsuit out of concern over the legal costs for taxpayers should the county lose. Some urged the board to continue to fight, including now-former Commissioner Frazier.
“It shouldn’t be about the budget, it should be about the fundamental rights of First Amendment rights. And it’s not just religion … but it’s really free speech,” she said, according to the Carroll County Times.
Frazier was also among those residents that protested the decision outside of the county office building on Thursday, holding a sign that read “Freedom of speech includes the word Jesus.” Others held signs that read, “Forced silence is not freedom of speech” and “Our founding fathers prayed in Jesus name; why not now?”
Frazier said that if the county is really worried about money, she will personally chip in toward the cost.
“I’m willing to put up my house as collateral or whatever needs to be done to have an escrow account ready,” she told the Capital Gazette.
She also noted that a group of citizens was working to raise money so that it would no longer be an issue.
“They said that the reason they weren’t doing it is because of the money, but now we come up with the money and now I heard that’s not going to change their mind either, but we’re going to continue to try,” Frazier said.
The settlement was signed by Judge Stephanie Gallagher on Tuesday, and prohibits “any prayer to be delivered by a public official or public employee at any public meeting.” It notes that prayer “does not include a moment of silence or secular invocation.”
The county also agreed to pay AHA $125,000 within 60 days as part of the settlement.
In Mark 8:38, Jesus said, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”