Carroll prayer case could hinge on upcoming Supreme Court decision

The outcome of a federal lawsuit over the Board of Carroll County Commissioners' custom of saying a prayer before each meeting could hinge upon an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a similar situation.

In May of 2013, Carroll County residents Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming that the commissioners' invocations of "Jesus" and "the savior" during public meetings violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Hake and Ridgely have since been joined in their suit by the American Humanist Association.

Commissioners countered by saying their prayers are not proselytizing comments.

"I don't believe that in America, we should be censoring your right to pray," said Commissioner Richard Rothschild, vice president of the all-Republican board. "If I say you have the right to pray, but then tell you how to pray, who to pray to, that's censoring."

The case's first hearing was in federal court in Baltimore on Jan. 10 and both sides are now waiting for a decision from Judge William D. Quarles Jr.

Attorneys from both sides said they would not be surprised if Quarles waited until the Supreme Court acts on a case similar to that filed by Hake and Ridgley.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, some residents took issue with the New York town's decision to open meetings with prayers delivered by local religious representatives. The Supreme Court heard the case Nov. 6, but has not rendered its decision.

The Carroll County plaintiffs have requested a preliminary injunction against the commissioners that would temporarily halt them from opening meetings with prayer, but attorney Dana Dembrow, one of three attorneys representing Hake and Ridgely pro bono, is not optimistic.

"It will be unusual if a preliminary injunction is issued," he said. "We're not expecting that relief to occur."

Monica Miller with the American Humanist Association is lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

David Gibbs, an attorney with the National Center for Life and Liberty, is lead counsel for the county. The county is also represented by Ken Klukowski, of the Liberty University School of Law, and Daniel Cox, of Cox Law Center in Frederick. All representation of the county is being done pro bono, according to county spokeswoman Roberta Windham.

Gibbs said what Hake and Ridgely are asking the commissioners to do is unconstitutional.

"Traditionally, we have always had these prayers," Gibbs said, pointing out that the founding fathers prayed in Jesus' name.

"We're in a situation where a small number of citizens are attempting to impose their anti-Jesus viewpoint on the majority," he said.

Ridgely said he doesn't believe the founding fathers wanted to promote religion, adding that the separation of church and state dates back to the founding fathers as well.

"This case has nothing to do with trying to limit anyone's beliefs," Ridgely said. "It's all about the exclusion of other beliefs and the basic separation of church and state."

Commissioner Doug Howard said the board has gone out of its way to ensure no one is offended.

"It's their prayer," he said of what commissioners include in their prayer. "It's not intended to provide any religious indoctrination."

Ridgely disagreed, saying that the prayer before a meeting puts county staff and the public attending a meeting in an awkward position.

"Some commissioners feel the need to proselytize," he said.

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