xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Our View: Commissioners right to settle prayer lawsuit

The Board of County Commissioners had to make a difficult decision Thursday. Electing to settle a lawsuit and forfeit their ability to lead prayers in their meetings, and to pay $125,000 to the American Humanist Association, won’t be popular locally and could cost them votes should they run for future office considering every attendee who spoke during public comment urged them to fight on, as did the Republican Central Committee via resolution. Despite praising the passion of, and in some cases agreeing with, those who commented, the commissioners unanimously voted to settle, with more than one calling it the “pragmatic” choice.

The commissioners were right about the pragmatism and they were right to settle Hake v Carroll County.

Advertisement

The citizens who spoke Thursday seemed to believe that by fighting on the commissioners and legislative prayer would prevail. Several sounded disgusted that $125,000 of taxpayer money would be paid to an organization that, per its website, advocates for "progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists and freethinkers.”

It’s possible the commissioners agreed. But precedent didn’t look favorably on Carroll County winning. Several speakers cited the Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling that upheld a New York town’s right to bring in chaplains and laypeople to lead prayers. The Carroll County case, however, was about prayer being led by elected officials, making it far more like Lund v. Rowan County. In that case, the Fourth Circuit ruled unconstitutional that Board of Commissioners’ practice of opening its public sessions with sectarian prayers offered solely by the commissioners.

Advertisement
Advertisement

According to the Harvard Law Review, In deciding Lund, one judge wrote that he examined the four main elements of the county’s practice: “commissioners as the sole prayer-givers; invocations that drew exclusively on Christianity and sometimes served to advance that faith; invitations to attendees to participate; and the local government setting.” All of these features raised constitutional concerns because they served to associate the government with, and promote, a single faith. Another judge concurred, finding no support for sectarian legislator-led prayer in the historical record beginning with the First Congress and explaining the Board’s practice ran afoul of the “Establishment Clause’s basic commitment to neutrality because a reasonable observer would conclude that the Board preferred Christianity."

It’s hard to imagine the same result wouldn’t be reached in Hake v. Carroll County. In fact, county attorney Tim Burke told the commissioners Thursday that not settling “would involve likely losing at the U.S. District Court and at the Fourth Circuit Court level.”

Then, the last option would be to take the case to the Supreme Court. And that would have been Carroll County’s best chance. The problem with that, however, is that the Supreme Court generally takes on fewer than 100 cases per year out of more than 7,000 petitions. Remember, the Supreme Court refused to hear Lund, essentially the same case as Hake. Had that scenario played out — losing two more court battles and not being heard by the Supreme Court — Carroll County would’ve been on the hook for legal fees. It’s quite possible this county would’ve had to write a check in the neighborhood of $750,000 to the American Humanist Association.

Robin Frazier, a member of the Board of Commissioners when the lawsuit was filed, said Thursday: “It shouldn’t be about the budget, it should be about the fundamental rights of First Amendment rights." Perhaps she has a point.

Advertisement

But even ignoring the tremendous monetary risk that would be taken by fighting on, there’s also the issue of whether elected official-led prayer has a place in governmental meetings where everyone should feel welcome. Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely, two of the plaintiffs, clearly don’t think so. Ridgely, a self-described deist, said the commissioners’ Christian prayers caused many to be “left out.” Hake, a Catholic, told us he objected to the commissioners’ “ostentatious right-wing evangelical-style prayers, because they’re hostile to my own Christian faith.”

The reality is that nothing is changing from the way commissioners meetings have been conducted since January. This board’s practice has to been to begin meetings with a moment of silence rather than a prayer. During that moment of silence, they are free to pray to themselves. Commissioners can also pray all they want before coming into the meeting room. What they can’t do is lead a prayer, which, traditionally, had been a Christian prayer.

According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Americans are Christians. Which means 30 percent are not. Had the previous commissioners led non-Christian prayer anywhere close to 30 percent of the time, they would’ve won the case because the court could not have found that the practice ran afoul of the “commitment to neutrality.” In Carroll, like in Rowan, any reasonable observer “would conclude that the Board preferred Christianity."

Most Carroll countians also prefer Christianity. And they might hold this settlement against the commissioners. But that doesn’t mean the commissioners were wrong. After Thursday’s decision, those Carroll countians won’t risk having to pony up more than half-a-million dollars for the right to lead prayers that likely make at least a few of their friends and neighbors uncomfortable.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement