Commissioner Frazier defies judge's order, opens meeting with sectarian prayer

Carroll County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier opened up Thursday morning's Carroll County Board of Commissioners budget meeting with a prayer containing references to Jesus Christ despite a federal judge's order that the commissioners temporarily stop opening its meetings with sectarian prayers to Jesus Christ until he determines the final result of a lawsuit against the county.

Frazier, who seemed near tears, began the meeting by expressing her displeasure with the judge's ruling. Frazier, R-District 1, said she was willing to go to jail to fight the preliminary injunction ruling.

"If we cease to believe that our rights come from God, we cease to be America," Frazier said. "We've been told to be careful. But we're going to be careful all the way to Communism if we don't start standing up and saying 'no.'"

She then proceeded to quote a prayer that she said was by George Washington, which included references to Jesus Christ, Lord, our Father, merciful father and the Holy Spirit.

John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College, said the prayer comes from the so-called George Washington Prayer Book, which was found in a chest of papers by one of Washington's descendants in the 1890s. Both the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Virginia, which houses the papers of George Washington, have concluded, based on the handwriting, that it was not written by Washington, Fea said.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party that fails to comply with an order of the court may be held in contempt. The preliminary injunction signed by the U.S. District Court of Maryland Judge William D. Quarles Jr. Tuesday is an official order of the court.

When contempt occurs outside of the court's presence, it is an indirect violation and may be criminal or civil, depending upon the nature of the violation and the penalty imposed.

Federal law gives the court discretion to punish the contemner - the party charged with contempt - by fine or imprisonment. The decision of how to address a violation is left to the judge.

Quarles signed a preliminary injunction Tuesday to keep the commissioners from continuing their practice of saying sectarian prayers. The commissioners will be allowed to make prayers at meetings, but cannot invoke "the name of a specific deity associated with any specific faith or belief ...," according to the judge's opinion.

The injunction is the result of a lawsuit originally brought against the county by two Carroll residents - Bruce Hake, of Union Bridge, and Neil Ridgely, of Finksburg. Later, Judy Smith, Lauren Graybill and the American Humanist Association joined Hake and Ridgely as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Monica Miller, one of the lawyers representing Hake and Ridgely, sent the commissioners a letter Thursday that said they were going to refrain from seeking contempt charges against Frazier in this particular instance "... in the hopes that [Thursday's] behavior was simply an emotional outburst made without the benefit of serious consideration of the rights of plaintiffs and others."

Miller wrote that any continued defiance of the court order will leave them with no choice but to seek a contempt order.

"We appreciate the commissioners' individual religious freedom, and encourage them to worship as they wish in their homes and in their churches," according to the letter. "We simply ask that they refrain from using the apparatus of government as a platform for their personal, sectarian religious views."

"Of course, 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. If that's the case, and if she therefore ignores both the court and this warning, she will no doubt get her wish."

Board President Commissioner Dave Roush, R-District 3, read a statement Thursday afternoon regarding the prayer lawsuit.

"As constitutional officers of this county, while we disagree with the current 4th Circuit case law, we do respect the judge's position in our American legal system," Roush said. "As commissioners who represent every citizen of Carroll County, we continue to respect the various faiths or non-faiths of all Carroll residents."

Roush noted that the 4th Circuit has permitted the commissioners to continue using the court-approved words in its prayers. Those words include Lord God, our Creator, giver and sustainer of life, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Heavenly Father, Lord our Governor, mighty God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, creator of planet Earth and the universe and our own Creator.

In Roush's statement, he noted the Supreme Court of the United States will be issuing a ruling on legislative prayer within the next few months that the commissioners and its legal counsel believes will supersede and overturn the temporary injunction. The case in question is the Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the high court will decide the constitutionality of the upstate New York town opening its board meetings with mostly Christian prayers.

"In legislative prayer cases similar to this case, other federal court judges have made very different decisions. The only legislative prayer case ever decided by the United States Supreme Court, in 1983, allowed prayers in Jesus' name at legislative meetings," he said.