The Carroll County commissioners must stop opening their meetings with prayers to Jesus Christ, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, a decision that comes amid a national debate over the limits of religious observation by public bodies.
U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. granted the preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by residents who say they feel excluded by the practice. Though the ban is temporary pending the outcome of the case, Quarles wrote that he believes the plaintiffs are likely to win.
The judge said the commissioners can continue to seek divine guidance at meetings but must not refer to deities linked to any specific faith.
The issue of public prayer continues to arise in courts across the country. A similar dispute from New York is before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering how to balance the tradition of prayer with the rights of different religious groups and those of nonbelievers.
Bruce A. Hake, an immigration attorney and plaintiff in the Carroll suit, felt that the prayers contradicted his religious views and made him uncomfortable at commission meetings.
"I didn't think we'd get such a decisive victory at this stage," said Hake, who is Catholic. "It's un-American to impose one flavor of religion on people."
The county has argued that its guidelines steer commissioners away from making sectarian references in prayer and that any references to Jesus were not frequent enough to violate the Constitution.
Hake and other plaintiffs sued the county in May, citing a new practice of praying at the beginning of board meetings. The commissioners take turns saying the prayer before they turn to other business.
Though many public bodies have some type of invocation before the proceedings, they generally refrain from language associated with a particular religious belief. Quarles highlighted that distinction in granting the injunction, writing that prayers at more than 40 percent of the commissioners' meetings contained explicit sectarian references such as "Jesus" or "Savior."
"The record indicates that the prayers invoked by commissioners before board meetings advance one religion to the exclusion of others," the judge wrote, adding that the Christian references appeared to be more than "infrequent, occasional, or incidental" and that the Board of Commissioners had done nothing to rein them in.
County Commissioner J. Douglas Howard said the board will seek legal advice before deciding whether its practices conflict with the order.
"I know there were some questions as to how each of us, individually, execute the prayer," he said. "Each commissioner will have to look at it from there."
To obtain a preliminary injunction, which Quarles described as "an extraordinary remedy," plaintiffs must show that they are likely to prevail in court and would be irreparably harmed if one were not granted.
They also must demonstrate that the defendants would not be greatly hurt and that an injunction serves the public interest.
The plaintiffs include the American Humanist Association, which advocates for people who do not believe in God. The complaint argues that the prayers are "divisive and exclusionary" and leave the plaintiffs feeling like outsiders.
Dana Dembrow, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the judge's ruling, while temporary, could amount to a lasting victory for his clients.
"In this case there's really no more facts to come into evidence. There's no reason to have a trial," he said. "This should be the end of this case."
But David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Center, said the Maryland court might have to revisit the issue if the Supreme Court overturns the decision in the New York case. That was decided by a federal appeals court on grounds similar to those cited by Quarles.
The question the high court is considering, Masci said, is: "If legislative prayer is still constitutional ... where are the lines?"
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in November, the justices indicated that the issue is a tricky one.
In a 1983 case, the Supreme Court relied on the long tradition of prayer at the beginning of legislative sessions to uphold the practice. But Justice Samuel A. Alito said last fall that any new framework would have to take into account a wide range of faiths.
"I don't see how you can compose a prayer that would be acceptable to all these groups," Alito said.
The high court is scheduled to rule by June.
While the Maryland case did not challenge the practice of opening meetings with a religious ceremony, Monica Miller, an attorney with the humanist association, said her group got involved in the lawsuit as a way to make the separation of church and state clearer.
Miller called Wednesday's ruling "a great step forward" and said she would like to see the practice of praying at government meetings ended altogether.
"Our position is really that all legislative prayers, be it sectarian or nonsectarian, are exclusionary, especially to our members," she said.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Blair Ames contributed to this article.