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Maryland legislators lobby Carroll commissioners on prayer lawsuit; board to stick with decision to settle

Two state legislators can be added to the chorus of Carroll countians upset that the Board of Commissioners voted to settle a lawsuit around legislative prayer.

In a letter to the board on Thursday, Maryland State Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, and Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-District 5, noted the commissioners’ concern over Carroll tax payers shouldering further legal costs, but asked them to hold off on signing a consent decree nonetheless.

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“We have heard considerable feedback from the community which we commonly represent regarding the issue of settling the case,” they write. “Given the new additions to the Supreme Court, we are hopeful the issue would be resolved to the benefit of local governments which seek to begin sessions with legislative, non-sectarian prayer.”

In seeking to settle the lawsuit, the commissioners agreed to pay $125,000 in legal fees to one of the plaintiffs, the American Humanist Association and not hold commissioner-led prayers going forward — the current board has never held such prayers, instead electing to hold a moment of silence.

Del. Shoemaker was a commissioner with the 59th board, the first such board of commissioners to hold commissioner led prayers, something he and Ready note in their letter. They argue that given uncertain outcomes in federal courts on cases concerning legislative prayer, the Supreme Court will eventually have to weigh in and that, “Given the new additions to the Supreme Court, we are hopeful the issue would be resolved to the benefit of local governments which seek to begin sessions with legislative, non-sectarian prayer.”

In an interview, Board President, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, was clear in his response.

“That changes nothing for me,” he said. “I’ve clearly stated what the facts are and I can’t be swayed by something they’ve said.”

Wantz reiterated points he has made repeatedly — that given the nearly identical circumstances of the the Carroll lawsuit to a case brought in Rowan County, North Carolina, where judges of the Federal Fourth Circuit ruled against the county mean continuing with the suit will only cost Carroll more money.

“Who in the world in their right mind would think the judges are going to rule against what they just ruled on?” Wantz said in an interview. “The Supreme Court already said ‘we’re not taking that case.’ Who in their right mind is going to think they are going to change that now?”

Wantz replied at length to Shoemaker and Ready with his own letter Thursday, and both letters are reprinted in their entirety below.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them, their job ain’t easy down there, it really isn’t. But we have a job to do here as well," Wantz said of both Shoemaker and Ready in an interview. “It’s our decision. I appreciate their opinion, but it’s on us and I’ll leave it at that.”

Ready and Shoemaker’s letter to Wantz

Dear Commissioners:

Late last week, news surfaced that the Board of County Commissioners was contemplating a financial settlement of the Hake v. Board of County Commissioners lawsuit concerning the legal propriety of prayer at the onset of Commissioners' open sessions. Subsequently, according to the Carroll County Times, the Board voted unanimously to settle said lawsuit.

Of course, you will recall that one of the undersigned was a member of the Board of Commissioners which implemented the practice which is the subject of the Hake litigation. That experience provides a certain amount of insight into the circumstances surrounding the case and its particulars.

Notwithstanding that however, we have heard considerable feedback from the community which we commonly represent regarding the issue of settling the case. We understand and appreciate your desire to be fiscally prudent and not unnecessarily risk taxpayer funds. Were the issue not such a fundamental one, the decision to not risk additional funds on top of a $125,000 settlement would be one we could support. However, the right to open a meeting with a non-sectarian prayer acknowledging that there is an authority or standard of good above our own individual desires and priorities is a vitally important historic and Constitutional precedent. We are writing to respectfully ask you to reconsider your decision to end the fight for this common sense principle.

Our legal rationale for the request stems largely from the fact that there is a split of authority amongst the federal circuits on the issue of governmental prayer. At some point, the United States Supreme Court will need to resolve those differences. Given the new additions to the

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Supreme Court, we are hopeful the issue would be resolved to the benefit of local governments which seek to begin sessions with legislative, non-sectarian prayer.

In Annapolis, we start session each day with an opening prayer. The Senate invites clergy of all faiths, the House of Delegates has members lead it. We endeavor not to offend anyone through that vehicle, but our intent is acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being and to seek guidance as we do the work of the people who elected us.

We believe our Commissioners should be permitted to do the same instead of, in this case, having to "pay to not pray". Respectfully, we ask you to reconsider.

Senator Justin Ready

Delegate Haven Shoemaker

Wantz’s response to Shoemaker and Ready

Good afternoon and thank you for your comments regarding this critically important issue. The decision was one that was made with a tremendous amount of thought and was not arrived at lightly. It remains very interesting to me that the elephant in the room is completely ignored by personal beliefs, and that is the decision that we needed to make based on the Federal 4th District Court ruling on the Rowan County case. Should not your dismay and argument be with them ? Apparently no, it is all about us and the incredibly difficult decision we made. I will not speak for my colleagues but will tell you, I have always, and will continue to be, a good steward of tax payer dollars. I too, have heard from an incredible amount of constituents with the vast majority agreeing with our decision. As a matter of fact, I have been keeping a tally of all responses. At present, 186 folks are in agreement, 23 are against and 4 are undecided. I will continue to add upon these numbers. Back to the Federal 4th District ruling, we were advised that the possibility of any positive movement forward is, at best, a shot in the dark. The same set of judges will rule on our case which is exactly like the Rowan County case. Would the judges go against their own previous ruling ? The answer is clear. And…..the Supreme Court has already said they will not take that case. I struggle to see what the difference would be with us. Should we put this shot on the back of our citizens with the incredible amount of financial challenges that lie ahead ? May I be so bold as to remind you of Kirwin, recession conversation, the future of Fire and EMS, teacher pensions, decreased highway user revenue, decreased open space money etc., etc. To place the possibility of additional dollars to the tune of hundreds of thousand of dollars for attorney fees on top of that partial list of responsibilities is challenging especially with the ever increasing burden of fiscal obligations being placed upon the Counties by the State. As I have been saying, I will not create a burden on the many, for the beliefs of a few.

We have and will continue to open our meetings with a moment of silence and I would be fine with exploring the possibility of clergy being a part of the process if that would present itself but I will not support a path moving forward with the very real possibility of gambling with additional Carroll County citizen tax dollars. I was elected to make common sense decisions and will continue this path which is overwhelming supported by my constituency.

Safest regards!

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Stephen A. Wantz/President

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