Challenging a judge's restrictions on prayer at Carroll County government meetings, a resident invoked the name of Jesus Christ before the county commissioners this week — raising new questions about free speech and religious liberty in a bitterly fought lawsuit.
Plaintiffs in the case asked a federal court late Tuesday to hold the commissioners in contempt, after resident Bruce Holstein recited a Christian prayer at a county commissioners' meeting.
Holstein spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, taking direct aim at U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr., who last week ordered a temporary halt to sectarian prayers.
"The judge may have prevented you commissioners from praying to Jesus Christ, but I want you to know that we, the citizens of Carroll County, are not gonna stand for it," said Holstein, who is the campaign treasurer for Commissioner Richard S. Rothschild.
In an interview, Holstein said he spoke on his own initiative, a distinction that could prove important as the case plays out.
Quarles' injunction only said the county is banned from offering prayers linked to specific religious traditions at board meetings; it does not distinguish between invocations offered by commissioners and by others.
Nonetheless, plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit — a group of residents who say they feel alienated by the invocations — said the commissioners should be punished. They also protested when Commissioner Robin B. Frazier uttered a prayer that mentioned Jesus twice — the day after Quarles' ruling last week.
Monica Miller, an attorney at the American Humanist Association who is working on the case, said it now appears the board has no intention of complying with the ruling. The national group advocates for people who don't believe in God.
The plaintiffs sought contempt proceedings, Miller said, to protect "our clients and the non-Christians of the community who don't want to be confronted by this kind of prayer."
Lawyers for the board declined to comment, referring to a statement issued last week in which the commissioners said they respect the judge's ruling. For her part, Frazier said she was willing to go to jail over her beliefs.
Because Holstein is not a commissioner and was speaking during the public comment period of the meeting, his words might not amount to a violation of the injunction, according to David Masci, a religion expert at the Pew Research Center.
That possibility arises because while the U.S. Constitution both guarantees religious freedom and prohibits the establishment of an official faith. The elements are separated by only a single comma.
In his order, Quarles rejected an argument that the commissioners' prayers are protected by the First Amendment. But in the case of a private citizen speaking at a meeting, things are less clear, Masci said.
"There's a big difference between something the state is authorizing and an open forum where people can express themselves," Masci said. "A lot of this will depend on how involved the board was in bringing Mr. Holstein to the meeting."
In a court filing, the plaintiffs argued that Holstein's role at the meeting does not matter. They pointed to appellate rulings they say support their view.
Previously the plaintiffs said they would not seek a contempt finding as long as there were no further violations of the order. Now they want a fine of $30,000 to cover the two alleged violations and further fines of $10,000 for future infractions.
The plaintiffs also asked the judge to refer the issue to the U.S. attorney's office for a criminal investigation.
"The defendants authorized a citizen to deliver a sectarian Christian prayer at their official Board meeting," the attorneys wrote. "There is no question the Defendants had the authority to stop this person from delivering a prayer at their Board meeting."
The court has not yet taken up the issue. But even before the contempt papers had been filed, Holstein said at the meeting that he expected the judge would be scrutinizing the proceedings closely.
"I suspect he or the plaintiffs' attorneys are watching to make sure you don't say a prayer to Jesus Christ," Holstein said, according to a video of the proceedings.