Two men who will likely become the next Carroll County commissioners to represent districts 2 and 4 said this week that they intend to bring back commissioner-led prayers before county meetings.
Michael R. Guerin of Mount Airy and Kenneth A. Kiler of Manchester won their Republican primary elections last month and spoke at a South Carroll Republican Club meeting Tuesday night, outlining their plans for when they take office in December.
“We should pray before every meeting,” said Kiler, 71, who currently serves as the president of the Carroll County Board of Education. According to unofficial results of the primary election, Kiler won the Republican nomination for commissioner in District 2. There are no Democratic candidates on the ballot.
Guerin, 53, who won the Republican primary for District 4 commissioner and has no Democratic challenger, agreed with Kiler.
“There has been a lot of discussion about prayer before a commissioner meeting,” Guerin said.
In August 2019 the county’s Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to settle a lawsuit and agreed to not lead prayers at their meetings.
In the 2013 suit, Hake v. Carroll County, Bruce Hake of Union Bridge, Neil Ridgely of Finksburg and county residents Lauren Graybill and Judy Smith sued the county in the U.S. District Court of Maryland stating that they believed sectarian prayers at the start of commissioners’ meetings were unconstitutional. The suit was filed against the 59th Board of Commissioners, which consisted of Haven Shoemaker, Richard Rothschild, Robin Frazier, David Roush and Doug Howard.
Shoemaker is now a state delegate and won the Republican primary for Carroll County state’s attorney last month.
The county ended up paying $125,000 to the American Humanist Association, which provided legal counsel for plaintiffs, to cover legal fees from the case. At the time, commissioners said they feared owing hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal fees if they did not settle the case.
In the 2014 case Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that starting local government meetings with a prayer does not violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and stated that requiring an invocation to be “nonsectarian” would force the governmental body to act as supervisors or censors of religious speech.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, although government prayers are permissible at the beginning of legislative sessions or council meetings, prayers at government meetings cannot be used to proselytize, coerce or demonize others.
Carroll County Commissioners President Ed Rothstein, a Republican who won his primary last month in District 5 and is unopposed in the general election, said he currently calls meetings to order using his gavel, introduces himself, and then invites those present to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He then offers a moment of silence, which he said is a time for people to pray silently, if they wish.
“I’m very committed to standing on a corner and saying a prayer in silence. It’s heard just as loudly,” Rothstein said. “We recognized that once we gavel in, [the meeting] becomes a government session and a prayer is not said.”
Rothstein said he was surprised prayers before county meetings came up at the club meeting.
“Nobody has brought this to my attention,” he said.
Hake and Ridgely, the two Carroll County residents who brought the 2013 lawsuit against the county, said they were also surprised to hear the issue being brought up again.
“They lost and the commissioners had to pay,” said Hake, who is a retired immigration lawyer. “It’s ... abominably stupid.”
Hake said he is a “very religious Roman Catholic,” but if this comes up again, “I’ll have to be involved in some way.”
Ridgely also said he would again take up the case if it became an issue.
“I’m ready, willing and able to sue them again,” he said.
Kiler said he was familiar with the 2013 case and said commissioners at the time “ran away from the lawsuit.”
He said he is “definitely open to the possibility of prayer, but I would like to discuss it further. I’m not a radical.”
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Also during the Republican Club meeting, Guerin and Kiler spoke about their plans for the future of Carroll County.
Guerin spoke about streamlining government operations and services and examining the county’s economic development. He also shared concerns about the operating budget passed by commissioners each year and said he would “look hard at the security of the schools.”
Guerin said he’s optimistic about the county’s future.
“This is a new day and a new future for this county,” Guerin said. “I’m called naive about some of my plans, but I’m going to be optimistic. I need to prove to everyone here and everybody in the county that local elections matter. We do know what’s best for Carroll County.”
Kiler said he is now focused on finishing out his term on the Board of Education, adding that “we still have a lot to do.”
Kiler said he wanted to become a commissioner “to serve the citizens of Carroll County, not any specific interest group.
“I do think the budget is very critical. We need to look at where we can save money. We need to look at what is important and what is not important,” he said.