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Carroll commissioners settle lawsuit over prayer in meetings, despite citizens’ urging to keep fighting

Former Commissioner Robin Frazier urged the current Board of Commissioners not to settle the prayer lawsuit Thursday and take the fight to the Supreme Court instead.
Former Commissioner Robin Frazier urged the current Board of Commissioners not to settle the prayer lawsuit Thursday and take the fight to the Supreme Court instead. (Mary Grace Keller / Carroll County Times)

Not willing to risk more taxpayer dollars, Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Thursday to settle a lawsuit to not lead prayers in their meetings, after numerous citizens told them doing so would cost them their First Amendment rights and the respect of Republican voters.

In Hake v. Carroll County, two residents in 2013 sued the county in the U.S. District Court of Maryland in Baltimore because they believe sectarian prayers at the start of commissioners’ meetings to be unconstitutional, according to Carroll County Times archives. The suit was filed against the 59th Board of Commissioners, which consisted of Haven Shoemaker, Richard Rothschild, Robin Frazier, David Roush and Doug Howard, county attorney Tim Burke said.

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In settling the suit, the commissioners agreed not to have commissioner-led prayers at future meetings.

The settlement is not finalized until the judge signs a consent decree, which is expected to occur within the next few weeks, according to legal director and senior counsel Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association.

“We are looking forward to seeing the case finalized when the court signs our consent decree," Miller said. “We’re certainly pleased that it is going forward.”

The $125,000 will be awarded to the American Humanist Association, which provided legal counsel for the plaintiffs, to cover legal fees from the case. The association was also a plaintiff itself, Miller said. The association “advocates progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and the non-religious,” according to its website.

Bruce Hake, of Union Bridge, and Neil Ridgely, of Finksburg, originally brought forth the suit. Burke wrote in an email Thursday that two additional plaintiffs were added later, Carroll County residents Lauren Graybill and Judy Smith.

Burke said the 59th board adopted governing principles that, for the first time, stated each meeting would begin with a prayer led by one of the commissioners on a rotating basis. That action led to the lawsuit, he said.

“For me, it comes down to the responsibility we have to all the citizens of Carroll, and what we didn’t hear hear today is the myriad of emails we got from other folks in our county who are very much challenged by the fact that we do have the real good possibility of spending upwards of three-quarter to half-a-million dollars to pursue this,” Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said in the meeting.

The case was put on hold for years, pending the resolution of a similar case in North Carolina, also in the Fourth Circuit Court, according to Burke. In Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina, the plaintiffs demanded the Rowan County Board of Commissioners cease opening government meetings with prayers, and the Fourth Circuit struck down the prayer practice as unconstitutional, according to the American Civil Liberties Union website. Burke said the decision was reached just last year.

Citizens push back

Fourteen citizens used Thursday’s public comment period to voice their opposition to the settlement. Many cited religious freedom and freedom of speech as reasons to push the case forward, and several suggested the commissioners take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Former commissioner Robin Frazier, who was on the board when the lawsuit launched, attended the meeting and spoke during public comment.

“This lawsuit came from Democrats,” Frazier said. “It’s time to take a stand.”

When the lawsuit came about, the court issued an injunction that stopped the commissioners from saying “Jesus Christ” or “savior” in its prayers, Frazier said. It was later lifted after the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, according to Burke.

Even when commissioners are elected, they do not lose their rights as citizens, Frazier said.

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Katherine Adelaide of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee reminded the commissioners they represent a majority-conservative county.

“Please support your fellow Republicans and don’t do this,” Adelaide said. “I consider it blackmail by two Democrats on the Democratic Central Committee, who are represented by the humanist coalition. You are not to represent them, you are to represent us. You are to have a backbone and a spine and take a stand today."

Another citizen said he was “shocked” to see a Republican board consider a settlement.

“If the Carroll County Board of Commissioners decides to vote in favor of paying the American Humanist Association, then I expect them to give $125,000 to every other religious organization also, because a failure to do so would be violating the exact amendment that is in discussion now,” Nathan Mateer of Eldersburg said.

Westminster resident William Sam Stansbury suggested a vote to settle the lawsuit would not bode well for the commissioners’ re-election.

“You know what, on election time, the Carroll County citizens are not going to forget this,” Stansbury said, eliciting responses of “that’s right” from the audience.

Virginia Elgersma of Westminster reads from a pocket version of the U.S. Constitution during the commissioners meeting Aug. 29, 2019.
Virginia Elgersma of Westminster reads from a pocket version of the U.S. Constitution during the commissioners meeting Aug. 29, 2019. (Mary Grace Keller)
County attorney: Carroll likely to lose in court

Before the commissioners voted, Burke said he believes Carroll would likely lose the case in U.S. District Court and Fourth Circuit Court, due to the precedent set by the Rowan County case, which the Supreme Court did not take on. He also said the Supreme Court typically takes on a fraction of the cases petitioned to it each year.

Several citizens suggested the board move forward with the case and accept legal services pro bono from the National Center for Life and Liberty, which has been representing the county along with Burke, Burke said. Although the organization provides free legal services, it would not cover the fees Carroll would likely have to pay to the plaintiff’s counsel should it move forward with the case and lose.

If the commissioners chose to go forward with the case in the Fourth Circuit, lost that case, and the Supreme Court did not take the case, Carroll would likely have to pay the costs of the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, according to Burke. Rowan County was on the hook for $285,000 when it lost in the Fourth Circuit and failed to make it to the Supreme Court, Burke said. Additionally, a similar case in 2010 in Georgia resulted in Forsyth County paying $248,000 when it lost in circuit court and couldn’t get the Supreme Court to take on its case, according to Burke.

If Carroll County moved forward in U.S. District Court and lost, Burke said the board would likely owe approximately $255,000 to the American Humanist Association for attorney fees.

Commissioners take ‘pragmatic’ approach

Although the commissioners said they believe in the right to prayer, they concluded that it would not be worth the financial risk to move forward.

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“The odds are not in our favor,” Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said in the meeting.

“This is a major gamble of taxpayers’ dollars,” Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said.

Citizens argued the U.S. Supreme Court, which is largely conservative, would favor Carroll County should the case make it to the nation’s top court. But Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said it would be a long shot to get the U.S. Supreme Court to even consider taking on the case.

“Faced with the staggering costs of this, I am not willing to risk our public resources on such a long shot,” Bouchat said, adding he appreciates the citizens’ passion.

Bouchat noted the commissioners do not all share the same religious beliefs.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, argued the moment of silence allows commissioners to pray if they wish.

“It does not take away our opportunity in that moment of silence to pray,” Rothstein said.

He and Dennis Frazier both said settling the lawsuit is the “pragmatic” choice.

During the commissioners’ discussion, murmurs came from the audience. Robin Frazier called out, “We were attacked and we should defend ourselves.”

Wantz, the board president, fired back immediately.

“Robin, you know how these proceedings work. I’ll shut it down if we can’t have the right conversation here,” Wantz said.

Plaintiffs, Robin Frazier react to vote

After the vote, Robin Frazier expressed her disappointment with the board’s decision to settle the case.

“On these issues that are of such foundational importance, no matter what the risk looks like, you gotta fight,” she said. “The way we know we’re going to lose for sure is by not fighting the battle at all.

“It shouldn’t be about the budget, it should be about the fundamental rights of First Amendment rights. And it’s not just religion ... but it’s really free speech."

Plaintiff Neil Ridgely expressed satisfaction after Thursday’s decision to settle.

“I’m deeply relieved and I guess I feel somewhat rewarded,” Ridgely said in an interview. “It has taken a phenomenally long time."

Ridgely was a county employee for 12 years and town manager of Hampstead. He frequently attended commissioners meetings and said he had “grown tired” of commissioners’ Christian prayers.

Ridgely, who describes himself as a deist, said the prayers caused many people to be “left out.”

While the bulk of the settlement goes to the attorneys, Ridgely said he and Bruce Hake will receive one dollar apiece.

“I’ll take the dollar,” Ridgely said. “I’m going to frame it.”

Although Hake is a Roman Catholic, he said he objected to the commissioners’ “ostentatious right-wing evangelical-style prayers, because they’re hostile to my own Christian faith,” Hake wrote in an email Thursday.

Hake wrote he disagrees with the American Humanist Association on “many issues,” but believes it is “right on this issue of sectarian public prayers at government meetings.”

He noted the lawsuit did not take issue with prayers in general, but “sectarian prayers” specifically.

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