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Carroll board would be barred from opening meetings with prayer if it approves $125K lawsuit settlement

On Thursday, Carroll’s Board of County Commissioners may vote to pay $125,000 to settle a lawsuit that would keep commissioners from starting board meetings with a prayer.

Carroll County Republicans, including a commissioner who was on the board when the suit was brought, are urging the current board to vote against the settlement.

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In Hake v. Carroll County, two residents 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.

Stephen Wantz, president of the Board of Commissioners, wrote in an email Wednesday that it is his intent to settle the lawsuit Thursday, but said he could not speak for the entire board.

If the board votes to settle the lawsuit, it would also sign a consent order agreeing not to have commissioner-led prayers, according to Burke.

The Carroll County Republican Central Committee issued a statement Wednesday afternoon urging the commissioners to resist the settlement.

The statement resolved to “encourage and support the Carroll County Board of Commissioners to continue the legal battle in support of the First Amendment Rights of elected officials in America, of Judeo-Christian faiths, to pray according to the dictates of their consciences by ultimately escalating this suit to the Supreme Court of the United States ..."

“It’s a First Amendment issue,” Rothschild, a member of the Republican Central Committee, said Wednesday. “Our country has been founded on legislative prayer.”

He said the prayers uttered before the start of board meetings were “pretty secular,” aside from the mention of Jesus.

“If we purge God from our institutions and ban His name then we should not be surprised if we lose God’s divine providence, and that is why I prayed,” Rothschild said.

Although the suit was filed against the 59th board, the current and 61st board must vote on whether to settle the lawsuit or continue, according to Burke.

“This board is still the defendant and they need to decide how they want to handle this,” Burke said.

The case was put on hold for years, pending the resolution of a similar case in North Carolina, 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.

Commissioner-led prayers continued up until the current Board of Commissioners, Burke said. Wantz, R-District 1, and Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, elected to take a moment of silence during their term on the 60th board while other commissioners chose to pray, according to Burke. When the 61st board formed, the entire board agreed to start its meetings with a moment of silence rather than a prayer, Burke said.

Rothschild feels that court rulings in the past have targeted Christianity, banning words such as Christ, Jesus and savior.

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“If I tell you you can pray but I’m going to censor your prayer, then you can’t really pray,” Rothschild said.

He cited a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the court ruled town board meetings with a prayer offered by clergy members is not a violation, according to the Supreme Court of the United States blog. The Republican Central Committee statement urged the Carroll case to be escalated to the Supreme Court in order to request “a follow-up clarification/interpretation” of the Town of Greece v. Galloway decision.

“Our country is clearly founded on Christian principles — anyone who reads the 15 supplication proclamations of the United States Congress, as I have, know that,” Rothschild said.

When asked if commissioners who worship a different deity should be allowed to pray at board meetings, Rothschild said “the First Amendment applies to all people.”

Rothschild encouraged the commissioners to “stand on the side of the God of the Bible and defend Him, His presence in our prayers, in our legislative prayers” as they make their decision Thursday.

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