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Howard: Carroll commissioners got it wrong in prayer case, should have fought for our rights

Since my second term as county commissioner ended, I have tried very hard to respect the current Board and keep my political views to myself, at least publicly. But the decision by county commissioners to abandon the hard-fought case to protect our right to open a public meeting with a prayer is cause for public comment. I could not in good conscience let the issue pass without the perspective of one who was there when the practice started, one who consistently voted to reaffirm this effort and one who has been strongly supportive of each of the five current commissioners for quite some time.

When I was elected to the first board of five commissioners, we had many decisions to make about governance. I was proud to serve as president of the Board for the first three years of that term as we navigated these changes. Prior to taking office, we agreed on a set of 10 governing principles, and actually voted on them in our very first session. We all agreed that one principal would be to start each meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer.

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Over the years, and in light of legal action taken, we consistently adjusted the policy to better protect the county, and yet preserve this right. When the next Board was elected (of which three are still serving), the practice was continued, while giving each commissioner the option to ask for a moment of silence or offer no reflection at all. Even that Board never took on a policy that would restrict a commissioner from praying or would constrain future boards. And, we pursued efforts to prevail in the lawsuit. If three who are serving today thought the practice was wrong, they had the votes to end that practice almost five years ago.

Prior to the vote, I spoke to two commissioners. One made it clear he was against the practice. He was accepting of religious references in “ceremonies,” but not during the working portion of the meeting. The other said it was strictly a fiscal issue. With all due respect to gentlemen whom I hold in high regard and whose service I appreciate, either argument fell short and did not justify abandoning this practice or this right.

I cannot imagine in what world, or in what way, seeking the blessings of God and His guidance as the work of government is being done could be a bad thing. In government we take oaths of office, we still say the Pledge of Allegiance (for now) which references God and we utilize a calendar that clearly recognizes holidays that are only religious in nature. It is not the expectation of our citizens that we operate the government with the absence of God. Nor was it the intention of the Founding Fathers to have a godless government. The principle was and is that the government should not dictate or require one particular religion or method for worshiping God. I believe that intent of our decision to pray and how it was implemented was very respectful of that principle and people of all faiths, or no faith.

This leaves the fiscal issue. As a commissioner, I would welcome the trade-off of $400,000 to do the right thing versus $125,000 to abandon a principle. That sounds like a bargain. This board spends over $400,000 per year to maintain a building that CCPS abandoned several years ago. The county has $500,000 or more in the capital budget for a turf field with little hope of being built — it has been clearly demonstrated it has no private financial support, only government money. And, the Board also recently increased funds to secure the county office building. In my eight years of service there was never a serious threat to this building and it shares a parking lot with the Sheriff’s Office, making it one of the safest buildings in the county. And the $400,000 was just a projected cost. And even if it was correct, it would be a one-time cost out of an annual budget of $400 million. This was not a fiscal issue.

I applaud those who stood up and spoke up on this issue. There should have been much more discussion and debate.

Ronald Reagan reminded us that freedom is ever only one generation from being lost, and it will not be lost on the battlefield but by the slow erosion of our rights. I do not believe that standing up for our rights and serving the interests of Carroll County are competing interests. I believe they are one in the same. If our rights and principles cannot be protected, upheld and fought for in a place like Carroll County, where will liberty find the strength to reside?

Former County Commissioner Doug Howard writes from Sykesville.

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