It's a shame Carroll County's board of commissioners felt it had to hold a formal vote in order to prevent members from violating a federal court order against sectarian or denominational prayers at the opening of its meetings. Is it too much to ask for elected officials to act like grown-ups and not deliberately break the law? Apparently it is for some Carroll County board members, who seem unable to conduct the public's business without going on about their religious convictions as if they were in a revival tent.
Last month U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. ordered the commissioners to refrain from offering opening prayers that refer to specific religious figures or doctrines pending the resolution of a lawsuit against the county brought by plaintiffs who claimed that board members' frequent invocations of Jesus Christ and Christian doctrine violated the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion. But the order had no sooner been issued than one of the commissioners felt compelled to defy it, and a few days later the board allowed a resident who serves as campaign chairman for one of its members to deliver an impassioned prayer during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Given that the county clearly was courting the likelihood of being held in contempt of court for the misbehavior of its members, it's somewhat reassuring that in the end cooler heads appear to have prevailed. On Tuesday the board voted 3-2 not to invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions and resolved to stick to only general references to a higher power, such as "God," "Creator" and "Lord of Lords." In addition, from now on all such prayers must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who came off as the soul of reason merely for voting in favor of obeying the law.
Is it still somewhat disheartening that the board actually had to take formal action to dictate which of its members can be trusted to keep it out of legal jeopardy? You bet. But at least a majority recognizes the reality that the board can't ignore federal court orders with impunity.
As a matter of principle, we believe that everyone's deeply held religious beliefs are worthy of tolerance and respect. But we also believe in the separation of church and state, that government shouldn't involve itself in promoting any one religion over another, and that public officials who feel they can't do their jobs without imposing their religious views on others perhaps ought to find another line of work.
That said, however, there's a difference between board members who openly invoke sectarian or denominational religious references as part of their public duties and ordinary citizens who make similar statements as part of an open comment period. If the board is going to dedicate a portion of its meeting to hearing the comments of county residents about whatever topic, that means there's nothing to stop them from talking about Jesus, even if they could be interpreted as carrying water for a political ally on the board. For that matter, if members of the board want to step down from the dais and get in line with the other citizens to talk about Jesus, Mohammed, Vishnu or the Buddha during the public comment period, they can feel free.
But before they get too carried away, the commissioners should consider where it all might lead. When you set up a forum like that and encourage (tacitly or otherwise) the airing of religious views in public, you can be practically certain it will attract all sorts of individuals and groups whose only purpose in attending is to shout down the other side. We suspect the board would be far better off avoiding such unproductive and time-consuming controversies and instead focusing on the business of running Carroll County.
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