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Supreme Court to consider prayer at government meetings

Whether the Carroll County commissioners meet to discuss zoning, the budget or other local issues, they start the same way — with prayer.

Commissioners take turns offering the prayer, often invoking God or Jesus. All five commissioners stand, as do any audience members who choose to, and then the lawmakers go ahead with their business.

"Prayer adds a certain sort of reverence to what we're about to do," says Douglas Howard, president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.

That view is not unusual in the Baltimore area. Three counties open meetings with a lawmaker's prayer, and the Baltimore City Council begins with the words of local clergy. But a lawsuit scheduled to reach the Supreme Court this fall could affect the ways such prayers are made.

The high court will review a ruling that a town near Rochester, N.Y., had violated the First Amendment ban on "establishment of religion." For years, the Greece town supervisor had invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council's monthly meeting. Members of the public attending the meeting were encouraged to join in the prayers.

Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, complained for several years that the prayers were offensive and inappropriate. Until they sued in 2008, only Christians had been invited to lead the prayers.

Seen through the eyes of a "reasonable observer," the town's prayer policy "must be viewed as an endorsement of … a Christian viewpoint," the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said in ruling against the town. The Supreme Court agreed in May to hear the town's appeal.

The case has led to an unusual agreement between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans that town councils should be allowed to open their meetings with a Christian prayer.

Lawyers for the administration and two groups of lawmakers from the House and Senate, nearly all Republicans, separately made that argument in briefs to the Supreme Court last week. The high court should relax the constitutional limits on religious invocations at government meetings, they said.

The American Civil Liberties Union disagrees and plans to file a brief supporting the plaintiffs in the New York case, said Daniel Mach, director of the group's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

"The [Obama] administration brief takes a cramped view of religious liberty," Mach said. "It ignores the basic idea that government should never play favorites with faith. It suggests the town's practice in Greece was OK, notwithstanding [the] clear alignment of the local government with the majority faith. It suggests that government-sponsored sectarian prayer inflicts no harm."

Mach said he hopes the Supreme Court affirms a lower court's decision that governments can offer prayer in public meetings, as long as it doesn't align the government with any one faith.

Baltimore-area localities take a range of approaches to prayer at public meetings — including no prayer at all, a moment of silence and spoken prayers offered by lawmakers or ministers. Baltimore County, for example, opens with a moment of silence. Anne Arundel and Harford, like Carroll, usually have invocations from lawmakers.

But the prayer issue has sparked at least one lawsuit locally — and a personal protest by an Annapolis alderman.

Carroll County established its current practice in December, when the county altered its form of government — opting to elect its commissioners by district — and created a set of governing principles.

Howard said the first thing he noticed about the outgoing commissioners was that they "didn't even say the Pledge of Allegiance, so I added that right away."

Another commissioner suggested an opening prayer as another principle. "Everyone agreed, and we adopted that, too," Howard said, adding, "Prayer is a way of seeking guidance and wisdom."

The Republican said the fact that prayers have tended to include Christian language should not be considered exclusionary because no one pressures the commissioners to pray in any particular way.

"If there were a Muslim commissioner, or an atheist, they could pray however they wished, or not pray at all, or invoke a moment of silence," he said. "After all, I wouldn't want anyone to tell me how to pray. It's a matter of free choice."

Neil Ridgely of Finksburg has challenged that view. He's one of two plaintiffs who sued the county over the issue in May. The county has asked U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. to dismiss the lawsuit; he has not yet ruled.

Ridgely, who attends most of the meetings, says that for several months, every commissioner has chosen a prayer that favors Christianity above other faiths, a fact he considers a violation of First Amendment freedoms.

"Believe me, we have Jewish people, we have Muslims, we have plenty of atheists in Carroll County, and that pattern excludes them. It's offensive to me," he said.

In Anne Arundel, both the County Council and the Annapolis city council open meetings with invocations offered by members. Most keep their remarks pretty general, though God is often mentioned.

John Grasso, vice chairman of the County Council, said he prefers that colleagues keep comments short and sweet, "wishing the best for the meeting to go well."

Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, supports prayer at meetings — and in schools. But he said that doesn't mean everyone has to be subjected to a full sermon where "you feel like you're sitting in church."

The County Council's invocation dates back at least to the 1960s, said Amy Tate, the council's legislative counsel. While the invocation was once the Lord's Prayer, at some point it was changed, and now council members offer their own thoughts, she said.

There is one time a clergy member prays before the Anne Arundel County Council: at the beginning of the annual budget session.

In Annapolis, when Alderman Jared Littmann's turn for the invocation came up in May, he made a point to say that he wouldn't lead a public prayer. Instead, he implored fellow aldermen to treat each other well and do their best to serve city residents. He posted a copy of his remarks on Facebook, where he drew a mix of supportive and critical comments.

Littmann, who is Jewish, said he has no problem with people who are religious or who use religion as part of their support for an issue. But he draws the line at having a prayer as a formal part of a government meeting.

"It's not a matter of whether you are one religion or another. Some people, including myself, are uncomfortable in including religion in government proceedings," said Littmann, a Democrat.

When his colleagues pray, Littmann stands quietly. He's not sure what he'll do for his next turn to give the invocation, but is considering asking people in the council chambers to shake hands with those around them "in the spirit of collegiality."

The Harford County Council also has prayers offered by members, said Councilman Chad Shrodes, a Republican who represents the northern part of the county.

Some council members change their prayer each time; others repeat the same prayer. Some opt to bring a clergy member from their district.

When it's his turn, Shrodes tailors his prayer to any pertinent or pressing events in the community or the nation. He usually begins with "our heavenly father," which he hopes is "broad enough not to exclude anyone."

"In any case, I've never heard any complaints," he said.

Shrodes said Council President Billy Boniface, a Republican, always opens with the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

In Baltimore, City Council members recommend clergy members from their districts to give an invocation. The clergy are encouraged to be inclusive of people of all faiths, said Lester Davis, spokesman for President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a Democrat.

"No one will get up and say specifically Jesus Christ. They're supposed to be speaking for all faiths and even nonbelievers," Davis said.

Other localities shy away from prayer altogether.

The Baltimore County Council starts meetings with a moment of "silent meditation."

There are no prayers at any other public meetings in the county, either, spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said. "We recognize there's a lot of diversity in our county."

Howard County Council meetings don't have a prayer at all, said Sheila Tolliver, the council's administrator. She said that's been the case at least since 1992, when she started working for the council.

In Cecil County, the prayer issue sparked a recent debate.

The county changed its form of government in December, and as the newly elected body set out to define regulations and procedures, Republican Councilwoman Diana Broomell brought up the idea of opening meetings with a prayer.

The proposal sparked sharp and immediate debate, as well as strongly worded letters in the Cecil Whig. The council discussed the matter over a course of weeks before voting in May for a moment of silence rather than a prayer.

County Council President Robert Hodge, a Republican, noted that Cecil residents hold a variety of religious beliefs.

"We know that some people strongly support Christian prayer in public meetings and that some people oppose it just as strongly," he said. "We just didn't want to get into that debate or wade into any court battle or court fight, in my opinion."

Tribune news services and Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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