A day after a federal judge barred Carroll County commissioners from invoking Jesus Christ in their pre-meeting prayers, Commissioner Robin B. Frazier did just that — twice — saying she was willing to go to jail for her beliefs.
“That is an infringement on my First Amendment rights of free speech, and I think it is a wrong ruling,” said Frazier, before starting a prayer that included the line, “Let thy blessings guide this day and forever, through Jesus Christ.”
Frazier’s defiant stance drew a written warning from the residents who sued the county to stop the prayers, which they say excludes people who don’t share the commissioners’ beliefs. In a letter to the board’s lawyers, the plaintiffs said they would seek contempt charges if she did not back down.
Federal law gives judges the power to jail or fine anyone who violates a court order. The plaintiffs in the case can seek a contempt finding but said they would not do so if the county begins to abide by the preliminary injunction issued Wednesday by U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. in Baltimore.
“It’s entirely possible that the commissioner wishes to become a public martyr of sorts for Christianity, a celebrity upon whom religious sympathizers can bestow admiration and encouragement,” wrote Monica Miller, a lawyer at the American Humanist Association who represents the plaintiffs in their pending suit against the board over the prayers.
“If that’s the case, and if she therefore ignores both the court and this warning,” Miller said, “she will no doubt get her wish.”
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, the board of commissioners struck a more moderate tone, saying that it would continue to fight the case in court but recognized that Quarles’ ruling had the force of law. The members “respect the judge’s position in our American legal system,” the statement continued.
The preliminary injunction is only in force pending the outcome of the residents’ federal lawsuit, but in issuing it Quarles wrote that he believed the plaintiffs would win.
His ruling said the commissioners can continue to pray at the beginning of meetings but must refrain from mentioning deities linked to any specific faith. Quarles rejected an argument that the board members were praying in a personal capacity, writing that the invocations amounted to “government speech.”
The commissioners’ statement Thursday said they believe the term “Lord of Lords, King of Kings, creator of planet Earth and the universe and our own creator” and several others would pass legal muster.
The board added that it “does not discriminate against anyone based on their religious beliefs or non-beliefs.”
But Neil Ridgely, one of the plaintiffs in the case, described Frazier's actions as “demagoguery.”
“She's put her personal beliefs before her responsibilities as a county official, insulted the judge, and every Carroll citizen who dares to have a religious belief that is different than her own,” said Ridgely, a former county employee who left his position before the current commissioners took office.
Prayer at legislative meetings was common in the 18th century and continued after the First Amendment created a separation of church and state, said Thomas S. Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University in Texas. But it is a custom that courts have grappled with for years and one that is back again before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A landmark 1983 case pointed to tradition as an important reason for letting the practice continue. And at Thursday’s meeting, Frazier invoked the nation’s founders in support of her position.
“This might be a good opportunity to demonstrate how our Founding Fathers, and leaders all throughout our history, have upheld the idea that we are a nation based on biblical principles,” she said. “We're one nation under God, and I believe that's where our inalienable rights come from.”
She said that she would be using the words of George Washington as she prayed, quoting, “I beseech thee, for the sake of him in whom thou art well pleased, the Lord Jesus Christ, to admit me to render thee deserved thanks and praises for thy manifold mercies extended toward me.”
The text of the prayer matches that of one ascribed to Washington in a 1919 book, but William M. Ferraro an associate editor of the first president’s papers at the University of Virginia, said there is no evidence the words are his.
The book appeared at a time when American religious groups were seeking to depict Washington as a saintly figure and imbued him with a range of Christian beliefs, Ferraro said.
“He was not an overly religious man,” he said. “He was not a strong sectarian who pushed one particular faith over another.”
Whatever the accuracy of Frazier’s historical reference, in their statement the commissioners said they believe Quarles’ ruling will be reversed once the Supreme Court rules on a similar case that started out in New York.
“If the Supreme Court rules as the Board and its legal counsel believes it will, this lawsuit will soon be over in favor of our county,” the statement said.
Bruce A. Hake, an immigration attorney and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said Wednesday that the two cases are different because the New York town has been more sensitive, inviting people from other religions to perform prayers before meetings. Because of that, he said he believes the Carroll plaintiffs would win even if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York town.
“The commissioners obviously don't understand what this ruling was about,” he said Thursday as he left the board meeting room.
Frazier's prayer follows:
"O Lord our God, most mighty and merciful father, I thine unworthy creature and servant, do once more approach thy presence. Though not worthy to appear before thee because of my natural corruptions, and the many sins and transgressions which I have committed against thy divine majesty, yet I beseech thee, for the sake of him in whom thou art well pleased, the Lord Jesus Christ, to admit me to render thee deserved thanks and praises for thy manifold mercies extended toward me, for the quiet rest and repose of the past night, for food, rainment, health, peace, liberty, and the hopes of a better life through the merits of thy dear son's bitter passion. And O kind father, continue thy mercy and favor to me this day, and ever hereafter. Purpose all my lawful undertakings, let me have all my directions from thy holy spirit and success from thy bountiful land. Let the bright beams of thy light so shine into my heart, and enlighten my mind in understanding thy blessed word, that I may be enabled to perform thy will in all things, and effectually resist all temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. Preserve and defend our rulers in church and state, bless the people of this land, be a father to the fatherless, a comforter to the comfortless, a deliverer to the captives, and a physician to the sick. Let thy blessings guide this day and forever through Jesus Christ whose blessed form of a prayer I conclude my weak petitions. Our Father."