A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”
The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs.
The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.
Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.
“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.
Plaintiffs in the case have asked U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. to hold the commissioners in contempt, a request that came after Commissioner Robin Frazier — the other opposing vote — and a member of the public offered prayers to Jesus at two separate meetings following the injunction.
Monica Miller, a lawyer for the American Humanist Association who is representing the plaintiffs, said Tuesday that the vote is “a great gesture,” but that the contempt request will stand. Quarles has not said whether the commissioners violated his injunction.
The resolution also bans the board from requiring or asking anyone to stand for the prayer. If Roush is absent from the meeting, Commissioner Haven Shoemaker is to deliver the legislative prayer. Shoemaker also voted in favor of the measure.
Miller said the commissioners were wise to require that only Roush offer prayers, since she said some other commissioners “have a track record of praying illegally and unconstitutionally.”
“Overall, this looks like a good start,” she said. The Humanist group advocates for the rights of people who do not believe in God.
Commissioner Doug Howard, who cast the third vote in favor of the measure, said the resolution is not an attempt to infringe on board members’ right to pray.
“As a practical matter, as it relates to this situation, I believe that what we’re doing is letting the legal process runs its course, which is what we should be doing,” he said.
Richard Vatz, a Towson University professor of rhetoric and communication, said government prayers usually don’t run afoul of the law unless they seek to change people’s minds or diminish one group in favor of another.
“I believe in freedom of speech, and this is perfectly legitimate law to curtail that,” he said. “They’re not above the law. We live in a country of laws.
The U.S. Supreme court is expected to rule in coming weeks on a similar New York case, which the commissioners believe could affect the outcome of their court battle.
In its resolution, the board said it “has respect for the law and the legal system, and will continue to open its sessions with prayer using ‘non-sectarian' words and phrases, until such time as the Supreme Court has issued its ruling.”
Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely, who brought the lawsuit against the county, said they felt excluded by the commissioners' practice, which was started in 2010 when the current board was sworn in. Hake and Ridgely were later joined in the case by the Humanist association.
The county is being represented free of charge by David Gibbs, of the National Center for Life and Liberty.
Mark Smiley, pastor at the Westminster United Methodist Church, which Roush attends, said his congregation views the separation of church and state as an important doctrine and said sectarian prayers at commissioner meetings could be counterproductive.
“I think it's giving Christianity a black eye and bloody nose,” he said. “It's a shame, I think there's so much to do. … To focus on those kinds of issues is to me a waste of time.”
Baltimore Sun staff reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.