There was barely a whisper about God during a Carroll County-sponsored seminar Friday on the state constitution. The speaker was introduced as Pastor David Whitney to an audience of about 50 county employees in a lecture hall at Carroll Community College, but he made no attempt to proselytize.
"I am honored to be with people who care about their country," said Whitney, the pastor of a Pasadena church who frequently lectures for the Institute on the Constitution. "I commend the county commissioners for having the foresight to offer you an opportunity to study the supreme law of the state. This class makes perfect sense."
When the five-member, all-Republican board announced the seminar, which cost taxpayers $800, and urged employees to attend, some organizations and county citizens raised concerns that the publicly funded course might be filled with references to Christianity. The Institute for the Constitution, based in Pasadena, espouses a Bible-based view of American law and government
Its teachings are based on the tenet that "There is a God, the God of the Bible. Our rights come from Him. The purpose of civil government is to secure these God-given rights," according to the institute's website.
After initially urging employees to participate, officials tempered the request late Thursday. The commissioners emailed employees that attendance at the three-hour session was "purely voluntary." They stressed that no attendance would be taken and there would be no sign-in.
Also on Thursday, the board received a strongly worded letter from the attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The group said hosting the class with public money overstepped the boundaries between church and state, and its attorney called for cancellation of the class.
"The letter was premature," said Richard Rothschild, the only commissioner who attended Friday's class. "We made clear that this would be an objective look with no proselytizing."
Whitney walked the class through Maryland's early history and asked the audience to travel back nearly 250 years to understand the rationale of the time. In the 18th century, only men 21 and older who owned at least 50 acres could vote.
"Property owners paid taxes," he said. "Those who paid nothing in taxes had no vote."
He described how the state's constitution evolved but never deviated from one basic concept.
"Our rights come from God, not the government," Whitney said, in one of only a few religious references Friday.
Whitney was not averse to taking political jabs, particularly at PlanMaryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley's blueprint for development. But he always added that those comments were solely his opinion.
He urged county officials to protect citizens from state mandates that he considers unconstitutional. Rothschild occasionally asked Whitney to clarify a point or offer an example to underscore a criticism.