Carroll County, which has seen recent divisions over development and immigration, this week split over government-led sectarian prayer, with one commissioner violating a judge’s order not to open meetings with a prayer to Jesus, saying it would be akin to her “giving up my guns . . . or my property rights.”
Several residents of Carroll County, a once-rural area outside Baltimore that is quickly becoming more suburban, filed a lawsuit last spring against the commission over its newly-adopted policy of praying before meetings. The policy has the five commissioners rotate pre-meeting prayers, many of which have used Jesus’s name, and a federal judge Wednesday issued an injunction calling for the sectarian prayers to halt as the case proceeds.
But Robin Frazier, who came into office in 2010 in an election that brought in an entirely new board, on Thursday said the injunction was wrong and representative of bigger national problems.
“I am willing to go to jail,” Frazier, who worked for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in intergovernmental affairs, said to the meeting, which was videotaped. “If we cease to believe our rights came from God, we cease to be America. And we’ve been told to ‘be careful,’ but we’re going to be careful all the way to communism and I say no to this ruling.”
The board represents change in the county, which has been divided over how much to grow and in what ways. Carroll is a majority-conservative county, and the new board is known for fighting development restrictions. The new commission also made news last year when it unanimously voted to make English the county’s official language, even though less than 3 percent of residents are Latino, according to census figures.
The lawsuit is the latest in decades of church-state cases asking whether the government is illegally “establishing” or preferring a certain religion if elected officials pray, for example, or if certain religious items are placed on public property.
Federal circuit courts around the country are divided on the question of prayers before public meetings, with some saying they are permitted so long as there is diversity while others — including the 4th Circuit, which includes Maryland and Virginia – have said sectarian prayers are illegal. But some experts disagree and believe a pending Supreme Court decision will settle some of the disputes.
John Whitehead, a civil liberties lawyer who has handled many religious freedom cases, said the trend for the past 30 years has been for more challenges to government-led prayers. Frazier and other commissioners who created Carroll’s policy argue that they are praying in their capacity as individual Americans and thus have free speech.
“At a certain point, the court will either say you can do it or you can’t,” Whitehead said. “The point is either you have free speech or not.”
The county commissioners are represented at no cost to them by the National Center for Life and Liberty, a Christian nonprofit organization in Texas that works to protect “Church liberty, Christian education, homeschool education,” among other things, according to its Web site.
Roberta Windham, a county spokeswoman, said Friday that reaction in the county has been “mixed” — both on the prayer policy and on Frazier’s decision to violate the judge’s order.
The plaintiffs include residents active in county civic life, including a former town manager who retired when the new commissioners came in and an active Democrat who worked for a losing commission candidate in the 2010 race.
Representing them is the American Humanist Association, which Friday said its research showed 40 percent of prayers at commission meetings invoke Jesus specifically. Monica Miller, AHA attorney, said residents had been complaining to the commission since 2011 but had been ignored.
“I think the trend now [in U.S. courts] is recognizing the rights of the minorities, that there are people other than Christians in these communities,” Miller said.
Miller said the AHA had decided not to file a motion for contempt over Frazier’s prayer but will if it happens again.
Windham said the prayer rotation will continue as usual at meetings.
Bruce Hake, an immigration lawyer who is one of the plaintiffs, said he is a devout Roman Catholic and considers it “evangelistic” and hostile to Catholics and others to force someone to hear a prayer he or she doesn’t wish to hear.
“I think it’s an insincere prayer, it’s political grandstanding, it’s hypocritical in the extreme,” he said. “When someone is advancing a particular form of Christianity that is still terribly hostile to Catholics, I take that as a personal insult; it makes me feel unwelcome.”