The Washington Post

Carroll County residents ask judge to fine officials for prayers at government meetings

Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly attributed a comment made by the plaintiff's attorneys to the judge. This version has been corrected.

A group of Carroll County residents has asked a federal judge to find county commissioners in contempt and to fine them $30,000 for allowing explicit prayers to be said at government meetings.

The residents and the American Humanist Association filed the request with a U.S. District Court in Maryland on Tuesday, a week after a judge from that court ordered the five-member Board of County Commissioners to halt sectarian prayers while a case over the issue proceeds.

A group of residents has challenged the commissioners, who established a policy of saying prayers before their twice-weekly meetings shortly after they were all elected in 2010. The residents filed a lawsuit last year, and last week Judge William Quarles Jr. called for the halt, saying the country’s practice is “likely” to be found unconstitutional.

The next day, Commissioner Robin Frazier gave a prayer that mentioned Jesus more than once, and she said she was willing to be jailed rather than give up free prayer.

On Tuesday, the commission’s next meeting, a commissioner gave a non-sectarian prayer to open the meeting. During the public comment time that followed, the commissioners did not interrupt a resident who stood and spoke out against Quarles’s ruling and prayed in Jesus’s name.

The resident, Bruce Holstein, was a treasurer for the 2010 campaign of one of the commissioners. In requesting a contempt order and fine Tuesday night, the American Humanist Association and four residents it represents said this was evidence that the commissioners were flouting the judge’s order.

“This is colored by what happened in the previous week. If we had no reason to believe the county was sponsoring the prayer and it really seemed random, it would be different. If they had issued a disclaimer or said, ‘This wasn’t intended to happen,’ we’d look at it differently,” said Monica Miller, an American Humanist Association attorney.

A county spokeswoman declined to comment and referred questions to an outside nonprofit that is representing the commissioners free of charge. A call to the National Center for Life and Liberty was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.

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