Carroll County commissioners have asked county employees to attend a seminar on the Maryland Constitution led by a conservative Christian minister, sparking accusations that local officials are overstepping the boundary between church and state.
David Whitney, pastor of a Pasadena church and a lecturer for the Institute on the Constitution, bases his teachings on the biblical view of American law and government. He said of the seminar scheduled for Friday, "We will be looking at the language of our founding fathers who wrote they were 'grateful to Almighty God for civil and religious liberties' front and center on this document. The Bible is the source of the authority that they looked to."
Critics, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said local officials are improperly mixing religion and politics in the seminar and wrongly using $800 in taxpayer money to fund it.
"It is outrageous for any county government to be spending taxpayer dollars for religious-right political indoctrination, which is exactly what this seminar is about," said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United. "Do these commissioners realize what a mess they have stepped into? This is a toxic stew, and employees should not be forced to dine there."
But Commissioner Richard Rothschild said it makes sense to give employees some perspective on the state's governing document. Managers are encouraged to attend and to allow any of their staff who might be interested to attend, too, he said, adding that he would have no problem requiring everybody to attend.
"It is perfectly appropriate to teach a course which factually explains the role God plays in our constitution," said. "Many of us take an oath to uphold the constitution. Government leaders should make every effort to understand it. Many of our problems today occur because leaders ignore this beautiful document, which I honor and respect."
The event at Carroll Community College precedes a two-day weekend course to be taught by Whitney in Westminster. The weekend course is open to the public and costs $75.
Last year, Carroll's commissioners drew criticism when they began opening their meetings with Christian prayer. The all-Republican, five-member group, elected in the 2010 election, also carved out one of the most aggressive positions in Maryland against a statewide growth plan that was ultimately adopted by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration.
"We have a God-given right to property," Whitney said of the governor's land-use plan. "PlanMaryland removes our right to function on our own property."
Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the Maryland ACLU, said the organization fully supports constitutional education, but this course goes far beyond that.
"It is expressly designed to promote a religious worldview," she said. "It is sponsored by a religious organization and taught by a Christian pastor."
Pressuring employees to attend infringes on their religious liberties, and using taxpayer dollars violates tenets of the document that is the subject of the course, she said.
"There seems to be a recurring problem in Carroll County with the entanglement of religion with government," Jeon said. "It is ironic that this group of government officials who are so concerned with the constitution can't obey its most basic commands."
The attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has written to all five commissioners, asking them to cancel the class and warning them the courts have forbidden governments from sponsoring religious programming or coercing attendance.
Bonnie Grady, former president of the county Chamber of Commerce, said she was concerned about the class. "Our tax dollars are being spent to fund Bible classes for county employees," she said.
Neil Ridgely, a former county department head who resigned before the current board took office, questioned the need for a course "with a religious twist."
"This is an outrageous misuse of public funds and an insult to the intelligence of county employees," he said. "The commissioners could have used the county attorney to give it for free."
Commissioner Doug Howard, board president, said he has not delved into the institute's background or philosophy but is certain the class will familiarize the staff with the Maryland Constitution, which, like most documents of its era, has religious overtones.
"I would be happy if more people understood what the constitution says and knew how to apply it," he said.
"The constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion but it does not say we can't make references to God. Ours is not a godless society. If the teacher acknowledges our foundation with historical accuracy, that is OK. If he espouses religion, then I would be concerned."
Howard and Commissioner Haven Shoemaker said they could not recall any discussion or board vote to authorize the class. Shoemaker, a practicing attorney, said he did not know it was scheduled until he saw an article in the local newspaper. He is not taking the class.
"I don't know the specifics, but if it's an objective course, I don't object," he said.
Steven Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff, said the idea for the class grew out of routine discussion during an administrative session, which was not open to the public.
"This is a training program, no different from other management courses," he said.
Cabinet members, department heads and bureau chiefs received an email last week encouraging them to attend the class, which is also available to members of the planning and ethics commissions and the zoning and liquor boards.
"We all ought to know in a broad way what the state constitution says," Powell said.
He expects the speaker to stay on topic, he said.
"I can understand Judeo-Christian references as a component to understanding the constitution," he said. "But what I want is an introductory course on the Maryland Constitution. If it goes beyond an overview of the tenets, I will speak out."