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Carroll commissioners say they'll return to sectarian prayer before meetings

Carroll County commissioners said Thursday they will resume giving each commissioner a turn opening meetings with a prayer of his or her choice — including those that name Jesus Christ — after a ruling this week from the Supreme Court.

The court ruled in a 5-4 decision Monday that Christian prayers before government meetings in the town of Greece, N.Y., did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The Carroll County commissioners, defendants in a separate lawsuit, had watched that case closely.

After the high court ruling, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. lifted an injunction that prohibited sectarian prayers at the Carroll County meetings. The commissioners' vote Thursday reversed a ban they had imposed on themselves after Quarles issued his injunction in March.

Commissioner Robin B. Frazier had said she would be willing to go to jail over what she described as her right to invoke Jesus' name in prayer at meetings. She hailed the reversals Thursday.

"For future generations in America, our First Amendment rights were upheld according to the way our founding fathers intended them to be," Frazier said. "I think it's a win for America."

Two county residents have sued the county commissioners over their prayers. Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely say they felt alienated by the prayer practice.

Monica Lynn Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, which is representing Hake and Ridgely, said Quarles lifted the injunction "out of an abundance of caution" after the Supreme Court ruling. She said the association has asked Quarles to reinstate it.

Miller said the facts of the cases differ: Greece, in upstate New York, was inclusive in prayers, she said, and invited citizens to give their own invocations from a variety of religions, even atheism.

In Carroll County, she said, "the prayers have never been diverse, always Christian." She called the Carroll commissioners' practice "egregious."

"They showed complete disregard to [the plaintiffs] and their constitutional rights," she said. "I think that makes our case really stand out."

Miller said the plaintiffs' call for the judge to hold the commissioners in contempt will stand. They filed that motion after Frazier and a member of the public offered prayers to Jesus at meetings despite the injunction.

Dave Roush, president of the Board of County Commissioners, opened Thursday's session with a general prayer that began "God of us all."

But after the vote, the group will return next week to sectarian prayers, with each commissioner taking a turn, as they had before the injunction. Frazier is scheduled to begin the rotation this Tuesday.

No members of the public offered comment on the matter before the vote. Roush said he appreciated the Supreme Court decision.

"When we pray, we're not praying for anything more than guidance, wisdom and blessings for this board in doing the right job for the people of this community," he said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Blair Ames, Ian Duncan and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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