The impact of Monday’s Supreme Court decision on prayers at legislative meetings was felt right away in Maryland, as a federal judge lifted an injunction on sectarian prayer in Carroll County and a commissioner there said the ruling shuts down “this so-called ‘separation of church and state.’ ”
The case in the suburban Maryland county, in which some residents challenged a new policy of commissioners offering prayers before their meetings, is one of at least five legislative prayer cases underway, according to the American Humanist Association, one of the plaintiffs in the local case.
In March, after Maryland District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. said that the policy of allowing sectarian prayers would “likely” be found unconstitutional, he issued an injunction on such prayers while the case proceeded. On Monday, Quarles lifted the injunction because of the Supreme Court’s ruling but went no further, ensuring that the case will continue.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Dave Roush opened the regular meeting with his usual prayer to “God of us all” and proceeded to discuss a bid for a wastewater engineering project.
Roush said that how the Supreme Court ruling “may or may not” affect Carroll would be discussed in open session at a commission meeting Thursday.
The court’s action set off debate among advocates and lawyers about the scope of the decision, which said that legislative bodies, such as city or town councils, can begin meetings with prayer, even of the sectarian type. There was disagreement about what it would mean for other legislative prayer disputes and for broader issues, including school prayer and religious displays on public property.
The issue in Carroll, as in other places across the country, has been divisive and charged. A local attorney for the citizens challenging the policy has been attacked on his Facebook page, and another commissioner who offers prayers citing Jesus said that editing her prayers would be akin to “giving up my guns . . . or my property rights.”
“The conservatives supporting [sectarian] prayer within the county are making a lot of noise, and things have definitely become more divisive” as a result of Monday’s ruling, said Monica Miller of the Humanist Association, which is working with the local attorney in the Carroll case. “The idea of prayer in government meetings does cause this divide and the distraction from what government meetings should be about.”
Although it’s not clear what the ruling will mean in the longer term for the case in Carroll and those elsewhere, several commissioners said they felt vindicated.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild (District 4) told the Carroll County Times that it was a “victory for prayer in America.”
“I believe this case sets the pendulum where it belongs,” said Rothschild. “For decades now, we’ve been hearing about this so-called ‘separation of church and state’ as an argument to try to silence certain types of prayer under the First Amendment.”
Miller said she believed that Monday’s decision would have “no effect” on her group’s case. The Supreme Court case centered on the policy in Greece, N.Y., where those who offered the prayers were not government officials, as they are in Carroll, which Miller said is an important distinction.
Federal circuit courts across the country are divided on the question of prayers before public meetings, with some saying they are permitted if there is diversity, while others — including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which includes Maryland and Virginia — have said sectarian prayers are illegal.
It’s not clear how Monday’s decision will affect the 4th Circuit.
One of the cases that set the precedent in this region was that of Hashmel Turner, a City Council member and minister in Fredericksburg, Va., who in 2005 was told that he could not pray in the name of Jesus. A federal court had said his rights were not violated when his fellow council members required nondenominational prayers. In 2009, the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.
On Tuesday, University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said he was “the wet-blanket commentator” in believing that the impact of Monday’s decision will be very limited and largely maintains the status quo the high court set in 1983.
He said he disagreed with some concerns, voiced by Justice Elena Kagan, that the decision will open the door to expanded public prayer. Legislative prayer has always existed, but it’s hard to say how widely so, he said.
“It’s not been a uniform practice always and everywhere. The practice has probably come and gone depending on who people were and the political climate.”
Rob Boston, a spokesman for the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision would have some communities revisiting their prayer policies, including communities that lost in court.
Roanoke County changed its prayer policy in 2012 after complaints from secular advocates. Since then, it has allowed only nonsectarian prayers. But one of its county supervisors, Al Bedrosian, said Monday that the Supreme Court’s decision would lead him to try to strike the new policy. Asked if a new policy he envisions proposing would allow pre-meeting prayers to be offered by non-Christians and people of no religious faith, he said that was unlikely. Such people, Bedrosian told the Roanoke Times, could speak during general comment time.
“I think America, pretty much from Founding Fathers on, I think we have to say more or less that we’re a Christian nation with Christian ideology,” Bedrosian said. “If we’re a Christian nation, then I would say that we need to move toward our Christian heritage.”
Board chairman Joseph P. McNamara said he wasn’t sure how the Supreme Court case might affect the county’s policy.
“If Al wants to bring it back up again, he can. Or anybody else can,” McNamara said.
Boston said the decision opens up new questions, noting that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said legislative prayers could be problematic if they “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.”
“Well, who will decide that?” Boston asked.
“There is potential for more litigation in the future.”