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A difficult balance [Editorial]

The principle of separation of church and state has been a pillar of American democracy since the country's founding, and most people think they know what it means. Yet in practice, the proper balance between freedom of religious expression and what is appropriate when it comes to the business of government has always been a matter of contention. This is an issue over which reasonable people can disagree, but the Carroll County Board of Commissioners surely did itself no favor this week by trying to win the argument by simply shouting the other side down.

The board injected itself into that debate when it opened its meeting this week with an invocation that seemed to deliberately defy a federal court order prohibiting commissioners from conducting official prayers that refer to a specific religion, denomination or sect. The order, issued by U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr., grew out of a lawsuit against the county brought by plaintiffs who claimed board members' frequent, explicit references to Christian theology and practices made people who did not share their religious views feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Yet the ink was hardly dry on that document when Carroll County Commissioner Robin Frazier opened yesterday's board meeting with a lengthy, rambling prayer that mentioned Jesus Christ twice along with several specifically Christian references to "Our Savior," the devil and original sin. Ms. Frazier justified her remarks by saying she believed Judge Quarles' order was an unconstitutional infringement on her First Amendment right to freedom of speech and insisted she was "willing to go to jail" to protect her right to pray. Attorneys for the plaintiffs immediately responded with a letter warning the commissioners they were in potential violation of the court's order.

The U.S. Supreme recently agreed to hear a similar case brought by residents of Greece, N.Y., who claimed city officials violated the First Amendment's ban on government endorsement of religion when they set up a system that allowed local volunteers to offer prayers prior to the town's monthly meetings that referred almost exclusively to Christian beliefs and practices. The plaintiffs, one Jewish, the other atheist, complained the policy left them feeling marginalized. But the Carroll County case differs from that suit in at least two important aspects: First, it's the board members themselves who are delivering the prayers, not local volunteers; and, secondly, they are doing so in direct violation of a federal court injunction prohibiting the practice.

No one wants to see Commissioner Frazier hunted down and clapped behind bars by the speech police simply for uttering the words "Jesus Christ" in an opening prayer. She's made her point, and moreover there's probably an argument to be made that if the government can prohibit her from expressing a request for divine guidance in the same terms she uses to refer to a supreme being, freedom of expression actually is diminished, if not her right to hold such views. And once government starts parsing religious speech, where does it end? Likely in a situation where there's neither freedom of speech nor religion.

However, we suspect there's also a certain amount of grandstanding here on a difficult issue over which the public remains divided. As a public official Ms. Frazier is sworn to uphold the law and she must realize that she cannot violate a federal court order with impunity. At the very least she could be subject to a fine, and if she continues to defy the court she could face increasingly stiff penalties, up to and including criminal contempt charges and potential jail time. People who choose civil disobedience as a way to express opposition to laws they consider unjust must also be prepared to suffer the consequences of their actions, and Ms. Frazier is no exception to that rule.

We hope when the commissioners meet again today Ms. Frazier will choose to leave it to the courts to decide what kind of prayers, if any, are permissible before public meetings. There is a long tradition of public invocations of a higher power, and striking a balance between freedom of religious expression and the Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion is an ongoing responsibility each new generation must shoulder and work out for itself. If the commissioners are wise they will allow that to happen in a way that puts neither themselves nor the county in further legal jeopardy.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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