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Our View: With prayer lawsuit settled, it’s time to move on

The decision by the Board of County Commissioners to settle the lawsuit, Hake v. Carroll County, last week did not make the issue go away. The “we’re moving on” response Tuesday night to a plea from a member of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee by Commissioner President Stephen Wantz, R-District I, did not make the issue go away. So we doubt Wantz’s answer to Sen. Justin Ready and Del. Haven Shoemaker — who jointly penned a letter asking the commissioners to reconsider — as well as to the protesters who showed up Thursday morning bearing signs expressing their displeasure, not to mention those who made allegedly out of line phone calls to the commissioners’ staff, will make the issue go away.

But, truly, to paraphrase Wantz, it’s time to move on.

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Hake v. Carroll County, filed in 2013, argued that sectarian prayers at the start of commissioners’ meetings was unconstitutional. In settling that suit, the commissioners agree to pay $125,000 in legal fees to the American Humanist Association and that they won’t have commissioner-led prayer at future meetings.

With the exception of the zealots who, according to Wantz, had staffers in tears after placing “dangerous and ridiculous and absurd phone calls," the passion on the part of those who oppose the commissioners’ decision is laudable. They believe they are in the right and clearly want the commissioners to fight on all the way to the Supreme Court, where they seem confident they will prevail.

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Failure to do so, however, would put Carroll County on the hook for several hundred-thousand dollars in additional legal fees. And, as has been written in this space already once this week, failure is not just a possibility, but rather a likelihood based on precedent.

Had the commissioners brought in a rotating cast of guest clergy or lay people to lead prayers, it seems they would have been on solid legal ground. Ditto had the commissioners occasionally rotated in prayers from non-Christian religions. But the prayers were commissioner-led and, on those occasions when a particular religion or religious figure was invoked, it was Christian.

In Lund v. Rowan County, the Fourth Circuit ruled unconstitutional that Board of Commissioners’ practice of opening its public sessions with sectarian prayers offered solely by the commissioners, noting in the ruling what was being practiced raised constitutional concerns in serving to associate the government with, and promote, a single faith. Critically important to Carroll County and its commissioners’ decision to settle, the Supreme Court subsequently declined to hear that case.

Wantz pointed to that case in his reply to Ready and Shoemaker on Thursday, when he also noted the coming perfect storm of funding needed for education (based on Kirwan Commission recommendations) and for fire and emergency services combined with decreases in highway user revenue and open space money, not to mention a potential recession. “To place the possibility 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,” Wantz wrote to Ready and Shoemaker. “As I have been saying, I will not create a burden on the many, for the beliefs of a few.”

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While the 15 or so protesters, some of whom also spoke during public comment at last week’s commissioners meeting, and those who placed phone calls were particularly visible and vocal in their criticism of the settlement, those who agree tend to do so behind the scenes. Wantz told Ready and Shoemaker he is keeping a tally of responses. “At present, 186 folks are in agreement, 23 are against and 4 are undecided,” he wrote.

One point upon which we don’t agree with Wantz is that “one of my previous colleagues owes an apology to our entire third floor.” That was a reference to former Commissioner Richard Rothschild, who said while on a Baltimore radio station — and also wrote in a column for the Times — that those who don’t like the commissioners’ decision should call them and let them know. If some of those calls were out of line, that’s reprehensible. But that’s the fault of the callers, not Rothschild. The callers have every right to express their disappointment, but, obviously, should do so in a civil manner. And they, like everyone else, need to understand the commissioners, elected to represent Carroll County, have made their decision and it is, indeed, time to move on.

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