The Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Aug. 29 to settle a lawsuit filed against a previous board alleging sectarian prayers that board held at the start of meetings were unconstitutional, agreeing not to have commissioner-lead prayers at meetings going forward.
Numerous citizens spoke out against the decision to settle the suit on Aug. 29, and in subsequent emails to commissioners, and on Tuesday, one went so far as to suggest private citizens would be willing to mortgage their houses to cover the county’s legal fees if only the commissioners would keep fighting.
“Let’s be clear: the decision has been made and we’re moving on,” Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said in an interview Tuesday evening with regard to such a proposal.
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. The suit was filed against the 59th Board of Commissioners, which consisted of Haven Shoemaker, Richard Rothschild, Robin Frazier, David Roush and Doug Howard — it was the 59th board that began the practice of opening meetings with commissioner lead prayers.
County Attorney Tim Burke state that he believes the county is likely to lose an appeal, and that similar cases have cost jurisdictions for more than $250,000 in legal fees, a prospective cost that played a large role in the board’s decision to settle the case.
Under the settlement, the commissioners agreed to pay $125,000 to the American Humanist Association, one of the plaintiffs in the case, and not to hold commissioner-led prayers at future meetings, something the current board has not been doing anyway, according to Wantz.
“The reality is, nothing is changing in our meetings,” he said. “We’re not doing anything different.”
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, Katherine Adelaide, a member of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, wrote an email to the commissioners, copying the Carroll County Times, asking them to delay signing any agreement with the court until citizens could raise money to fund further legal action.
“I am asking the board to kindly refrain from signing a consent agreement until Sept. 11 at a minimum so citizens can post a bond for $175,000 by Sept. 11, 2019, payable for plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees only if the Supreme Court refuses cert or the case is lost at the Supreme Court," Adelaide wrote. “It’s just nine days Commissioners. Please give citizens a chance to save the 1st Amendment freedom of speech right and our reputations as Republicans in Carroll County and in the 4th Circuit and possibly nationwide.”
In a subsequent email, Adelaide wrote of others who would support such action that, “Some have already volunteered to pledge their homes as collateral pending actual funding.”
This is something Wantz rejected out of hand as inappropriate.
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“I’m puzzled as to in what world people would think it would be normal for an elected body to use private citizens’ homes as some form of collateral for a lawsuit like this,” he said in an interview. “That to me is unconscionable.”
In a reply to Adelaide, and also copying the Times, Bouchat made it clear his position on the lawsuit was also final, noting that it was “an issue best pursued by a private coalition of citizens who are self-funded.”
“Therefore, without risking public finances, I am content with having a moment of silence for me to conduct my relationship with God in private. I see no need for the public to hear my prayers nor do I need to hear my colleagues’ prayers,” Bouchat wrote in reply. “Religion is a personal choice and experience that has no need for vocalization except where appropriate.”
Adelaide for her part, responded in a third email pointing out she was proposing a way to mitigate a loss of public money in ongoing litigation.
“This case has never been litigated on the merits and cost alone should not be the only criteria, especially if private citizens can raise funds in a timely manner,” she wrote. “The settlement as proposed discriminates against all faiths which shows that the Plaintiffs care nothing for the first amendment, just silencing Christians who pray to Jesus, the real target of this litigation.”
But Wantz noted, as did Bouchat, that he did not see the settlement as infringing on his First Amendment rights.
“I’m a Christian and I pray every day, but in the four-and-a-half years I have been commissioner, I have never prayed in front of people to open a meeting,” he said. “I’ve always done a moment of silence and this new board elected to that as well. Pray to yourself. This lawsuit is over as far as I am concerned.”