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After Carroll board decides to settle prayer lawsuit, citizens protest outside county office, over phone

A week after the Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted to settle a lawsuit that will end commissioner-led prayer at public meetings, citizens protested outside the county office building and others called the commissioners’ office to voice their dissent — resulting in tears for some county employees, according to one commissioner.

Carroll County citizens holding handmade signs spread out along Center Street in Westminster on Thursday morning before the Board of Commissioners meeting to protest its recent decision to settle the lawsuit.

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Later that day, board President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said county staff received “dangerous and ridiculous and absurd phone calls" after the commissioners voted to settle the suit.

“You can beat on us all you want because we were elected to these positions, but when our staff gets beat up, I got a real problem with that,” Wantz said during the commissioners’ meeting. “That was uncalled for.”

After adjournment, Wantz said the phone calls came the day after commissioners voted. Last week, the commissioners voted to settle the Hake v. Carroll County case by paying $125,000 to the American Humanist Association. The 2013 lawsuit, originally started by two Carroll citizens, took issue with the 59th Board of Commissioners leading sectarian prayers at public meetings.

Wantz said the phone calls took a toll on county staff.

“A couple of them were in tears,” he said.

He accused a former commissioner of inciting phone calls when he was interviewed by a Baltimore radio station.

“One of my previous colleagues owes an apology to our entire third floor,” Wantz said after the board meeting.

Although Wantz did not name the former commissioner, Richard Rothschild said he was recently on WCBM radio to speak about the lawsuit and the commissioners’ decision. Rothschild said on the air that if people were unhappy with the decision, they should contact the commissioners, he confirmed.

“I have no control over what callers say when they call in,” Rothschild said Thursday, speaking on a phone call from Texas.

Rothschild said he was in Texas partially to speak with lawyers about Hake v. Carroll County. He said the attorneys he spoke to said Carroll County citizens would not be able to fight this on their own, as commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, previously suggested.

“They have no standing,” Rothschild said.

He disagreed with the commissioners’ intent to sign a consent order that will ban future commissioners from leading prayers in public meetings. Rothschild encouraged the commissioners to listen to the “overwhelmingly” opposed citizens they represent.

Citizens protest

About 15 people, many of them holding signs referencing God and the First Amendment, walked up and down the sidewalk on the opposite of side of the main entrance to the county office building Thursday morning.

Katherine Adelaide of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee said she helped gather people from the committee and local churches to demonstrate from 8 to 10 a.m. Thursday, hoping the commissioners on their way to the office would see their signs.

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“The purpose of the prayer demonstration today was to make the public aware the vote occurred, and we believe it infringes upon our First Amendment right of free speech and religion because it binds future commissioners in perpetuity who do have a right to pray at a public meeting if they’re elected,” Adelaide said.

The current Board of Commissioners has held a moment of silence at the start of its meetings since this board formed.

“It’s like the first nail in the coffin. It’s the beginning of the end. It’s a very poor decision on their part,” Dean Pennington of Union Bridge said.

Pennington carried a sign that read, “Cost: $1.00 per citizen only IF we lose. Benefit: Free Speech."

Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association, said in an interview she was not surprised by the outcome of the case or by people’s strong reactions.

“Every court that’s addressed the issue of legislative prayer has been clear” that even when private citizens deliver prayer in these meetings, Miller said, “they are deemed government speech and subject to the restrictions of the establishment clause [of the U.S. Constitution]."

When commissioners hold prayers in meetings, that is “unambiguous” and “clearly government speech,” she said, and would not be protected by the free speech clause.

In a settlement discussion over a month ago, Miller said, the parties signed a tentative agreement with the court mediator and counsel. At that point, all that was left was to confirm was whether the county has the funds for the settlement, she said. A judge has not signed the consent order yet, Miller said, and she plans to file it with the court next week. Legally speaking, it’s not impossible for the commissioners to reverse their decision, she said, but the terms had already been agreed upon.

Before voting last week to settle, the commissioners said the risk of taking the case to a higher court and losing is not one they wish to take. County attorney Tim Burke then said that if the case went to the U.S. District Court and Fourth Circuit Court and lost, the county would likely have to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, and in similar cases, counties paid $250,000 or more for their losses.

Robin Frazier, who served on the 59th Board of Commissioners, came out to protest Thursday. She said that if the commissioners are worried about money, then she’ll help front the cost if they lose.

“I’m willing to put up my house as collateral or whatever needs to be done to have an escrow account ready,” she said, expressing confidence that the county would win the case.

According to Frazier, a group of citizens is raising funds to provide the money the board would need to pay if it continued forward with the lawsuit in court and lost.

“They said that the reason they weren’t doing it is because of the money, but now we come up with the money and now I heard that’s not going to change their mind either, but we’re going to continue to try," Frazier said.

Wantz made clear Tuesday the lawsuit is settled and the board’s decision is final, telling the Carroll County Times, “... the decision has been made and we’re moving on.”

Nevertheless, citizens came out Thursday hoping to change the commissioners’ minds.

“I’m hoping that they will reverse their decision and decide to fight this settlement, fight this lawsuit,” said Bill Caswell of Westminster.

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“I’m here because the commissioners are basically willing to pay a bribe to avoid the possibility of losing in court,” Westminster resident James Graham said. “This is a much wider issue than just simply a prayer in a public office here today. It’s a possibility of a precedent for the country, so it’s much more important than it appears."

At the start of the day, there was a bit of confusion over where demonstrators were allowed to stand.

Adelaide said two Carroll County Sheriff’s Office deputies asked two men holding signs on the sidewalk outside the main entrance of the county office building to relocate to the sidewalk on the other side of the building, along Center Street.

Sheriff Jim DeWees said people entering and exiting the building complained, and he felt the protesters created an “access issue.”

“We asked politely for people to move,” DeWees said.

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