WESTMINSTER, Md. — Heading west along Route 140 into Carroll County, where red brick churches and strip malls share the road with shaved-ice stands, feed shops and Jiffy Marts, drivers encounter a billboard that asks, “If you die tonight, Heaven or Hell?”
Just 90 minutes from the nation’s capital and half an hour from Baltimore’s industrial port, the county’s rolling hills and crumbling farmhouses are emblems of a slower-paced, quieter America. But this week it was a place where stark choices played out, reflecting a divisive national debate around the appropriate confluence of religion and politics.
On Thursday, the mood at a county board of commissioners meeting was triumphant — two days after a federal judge lifted an injunctionagainst sectarian prayers at their sessions. The move followed a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision Monday to allow sectarian prayers in legislative sessions, even if they clearly favor a specific religion.
“I’m very appreciative of the Supreme Court,” said Commissioner Richard Rothschild, adding in a later telephone interview that barring the use of the words “Jesus,” “Christ” or “Savior” was akin to barring three notes from a song.
The board meeting had opened with a non-sectarian prayer — before the members voted to resume sectarian prayers.
“God of us all,” said board President Dave Roush, “. . . give us vision, give us guidance, give us wisdom to do the business of the people of this community in the best interests of all of our citizens.”
But citizens don’t always agree on what constitutes their best interests. The injunction had come after some county residents filed a suit challenging the board members’ practice of offering prayers to Jesus Christ.
The suit is still pending, and the debate, some residents say, reflects a larger question of whether the county is prepared to embrace a more diverse and inclusive vision of what it means to be American.
Members of the all-Republican board said sectarian prayer had been intended by America’s founding fathers.
Commissioner Robin Frazier, who had likened the injunction to giving up her guns or her property rights, called the court’s decision “a win for America.”
But at gas station convenience stores, rural restaurants and the Westminster Public Library only around half of the people surveyed said they were aware of the debate. And most who had heard about it said it had not been a big topic of conversation in their lives.
Perhaps that is because many people choose to live in the county because they want to get away from the problems of the nation at large. Unlike some of the more diverse counties surrounding the Washington metropolitan area, Carroll County is almost totally white, relatively well-off and largely Christian and conservative.
Twenty-eight percent of residents are registered Democrats and 51 percent are Republicans, with 19 percent unaffiliated, according to county records. Of the 158 religious congregations listed by the Association of Religion Data Archives, all but a handful are Christian. The median income — $80,000 — is significantly higher than the national average, and unlike nearby counties that serve as bedroom communities for big cities, the county has essentially no public transportation linking it to the outside.
The county attracts people in search of a safe place to live: In 2012, the violent crime rate was 181.2 per 100,000 people, compared with 477.2 statewide; the county reported three homicides in 2012.
In 2010, according to census data, 95.7 percent of the county’s 167,000 residents were white, up from 92.9 percent of the 151,000 people who lived there in 2000. The county’s Hispanic population had risen from 1,489 in 2000 to 4,363 in 2010, bringing it to 2.6 percent of residents. Nevertheless, the Board of Commissioners last year voted unanimously to make English the county’s official language.
Around the county, those who had heard about the debate on sectarian prayer at board meetings tended to have an opinion.
To Frank Warner, 64, a retired property manager who has lived in Carroll County all his life, the freedom to pray to Jesus Christ, to a Hindu god or to the Muslim god, is “what America’s supposed to be all about.”
“If you pray to nobody, it’s just an empty prayer,” he said as he ate lunch with his wife, Carol, in Baugher’s, a farm-run restaurant and produce stand in Westminster. “Who are you praying to, the door? the window?” If residents object to the commissioners’ approach to prayers, he said, they had a simple recourse: “They can vote in someone else.”
But standing in the sun by baskets of tomatoes, software engineer David Drury, 49, worried that the commissioners were blurring the line between religion and politics. “We’re electing them to office,” he said. “We’re not paying them to be religious leaders.”
Whether more voters agree with Drury or with Warner will help decide the future of the board’s five seats this year. All the commissioners were new in 2010, and four are running for reelection, with a primary scheduled for next month.
The local residents who brought the suit included a Catholic man and a self-described deist, who says he believes in a higher power but does not adhere to a specific denomination. “Both of them were made to feel unwelcome by virtue of the prayer that was delivered,” said Dana Denbrow, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who also are represented by the American Humanist Association, which advocates for church-state separation and the rights of athiests. The association is also a plaintiff in the case.
Neil Ridgely, the deist, is a retired county employee who worked variously as zoning commissioner, sustainability director and the manager of landscaping and forest conservation. Sitting in his living room in Reistertown, which is decorated with stuffed blackbirds and antique tools, Ridgely described the county’s recent evolution.
Carroll County had long been conservative, he said, but while his liberal politics had sometimes clashed with past boards, their members had always worked with him. However, with the election of the current board in 2010 it swung far to the right, he said. “I was sort of invited to leave,” he said, “because I have an environmental background.”
He continued to attend board meetings, he said, even as the board entertained speakers who denied climate change and spoke out against smart growth. But when the commissioners started offering sectarian prayers, he stopped attending. “I personally felt extremely excluded,” he said, adding, “I think they just want to be seen praying. . . . We have a large fundamentalist community here, and I think they feel it will enhance their standing if they can be seen to be prayerful.”
Rothschild rejected the suggestion. “I don’t think any of us would ever base a decision as serious as how we pray on election concerns — that would not be Christ-like behavior,” he said. “The plaintiffs are trying to keep it alive, but I believe this issue has been resolved.”
Those pursuing the suit say the case in Carroll County is different from the case in Greece, N.Y., which went to the Supreme Court.
“The sectarian prayers being said here are being said by the elected officials themselves, whereas in the Greece case the prayers were said by invitees, usually clergy,” said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. “When an elected official speaks, he or she presumably speaks for the government, whereas when someone else is invited in from the outside it is not the government endorsing the prayers.”
Angel Freeburger, 20, a Westminster resident who is working on getting her GED, said she was not bothered by the prayers. “Most schools, they still do the pledge of allegiance, and that has something to do with God in it,” she said. “That’s cool with me, because I’m Catholic.”
But to John Murray, 44, a father of four who lives in Mount Airy and was in the library helping his teenage daughter register for her SATs, said the commissioners’ prayers were “a little over the top.”
He said he was surprised at the Supreme Court’s decision. “It seems like we’re becoming more secular and certainly more diverse, so this ruling seems to go against where we’re headed as a country.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.