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Year in Review: Commissioners fight for their right to pray

Carroll County is still awaiting a federal judge to determine whether county commissioners should be able to open government meetings with a Christian prayer, or whether the practice infringes on the rights of residents.

While an initial lawsuit was filed in May 2013 by two Carroll residents challenging the Carroll County Board of Commissioners' practice of starting each meeting with a prayer to Jesus Christ, it was in March of this year that U.S. District Court Judge William D. Quarles Jr. issued a temporary injunction to temporarily stop the commissioners' sectarian prayers until he determined the final result of the lawsuit.

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Just two days after the injunction was handed down, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier opened up a meeting with a prayer containing references to Jesus Christ despite the federal judge's order. Frazier, who seemed near tears, began the meeting by expressing her displeasure with the judge's ruling and saying she was willing to go to jail to fight the preliminary injunction.

"If we cease to believe that our rights come from God, we cease to be America," Frazier said. "We've been told to be careful. But we're going to be careful all the way to Communism if we don't start standing up and saying 'no.'"

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She then proceeded to quote a prayer which included references to Jesus Christ, Lord, our Father, merciful father and the Holy Spirit.

Within a week of Frazier's prayer, the board voted 3-2 on a resolution to freeze the board's practice of offering sectarian prayers until Aug. 1. However, the board reversed course in May after the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Town of Greece vs. Galloway and the judge lifted his injunction. In late June, the board voted to formalize the practice of prayer before meetings, as the Supreme Court decision indicated a governing body planning on opening its meeting with a sectarian prayer must have a formalized process.

However, the lawsuit remains active, as the plaintiffs have argued there are significant differences between the practices in the Town of Greece case and the procedures of the board of commissioners. Greece would invite clergy and citizens of various faiths to open their meetings, while Carroll commissioners offered the prayers themselves and only made reference to Christianity.

Monica Miller, an attorney at the American Humanist Association representing the plaintiffs, previously told the Times that they have presented a supplemental memorandum citing a recent decision by a court in Virginia that supports their claim that prayers delivered by commissioners are unconstitutional.

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The plaintiffs maintain that Christian-themed prayers are a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Establishment Clause is followed immediately by the Free Exercise Clause, which states, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said the commissioners should have the option of delivering a prayer to the deity of their choice as long as they denote the prayer is a representation of their individual beliefs and not the board as a whole, based on both the state and U.S. Constitutions.

Barbara Weller, an attorney representing the county in the case, said the Supreme Court has already settled the issue of legislative prayer in Greece vs. Galloway case and expects Quarles will uphold the decision.

Both parties have requested a summary judgment from a federal court, meaning they want the judge to decide the case and avoid a long and drawn-out trial.

In December, three new members of the board of commissioners were sworn into office, and one of the first orders of business of the new board was to revisit the decision to pray before meetings. The new board ultimately voted 3-2 to continue its practices rather than open meetings with a moment of silence, with new commissioners Richard Weaver, R-District 2, and Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, as the dissenting votes.

Some of the controversy surrounding the prayer issue pertained to the time and money the commissioners spent dealing with the lawsuit. Tim Burke, county attorney, said in the last four years, the commissioners have spent about 20 hours deliberating over the subject in session and meeting with legal representation. The county has spent $3,500 on the lawsuit, as the firm defending the county is doing it pro bono, with the money going toward travel expenses for the firm, Burke said.

Bruce Hake, of Union Bridge, and Neil Ridgely, of Finksburg, filed the lawsuit against the board in 2013 after members of the board opened meetings with prayers to Jesus Christ. Residents Judy Smith and Lauren Graybill, along with the American Humanist Association, later joined the lawsuit.

Biggest stories of 2014

Through the end of the year, the Times will be unveiling its biggest news stories in Carroll County from the past year.

Friday: Crime at McDaniel; proposal to house immigrant children

Saturday: String of violent crimes and trials; Men's Wearhouse buys Jos. A. Bank

Sunday: Community remembers mall shooting victims; friends hope for Barnes' legacy

Monday: Commissioners defend right to pray; hospital partners with LifeBridge

Tuesday:

Wednesday:

Find the series on our website, at carrollcountytimes.com.

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