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Carroll County learns the hard way: Religion and government should not mix

Former commissioner Robin Frazier urged the board of commissioners not to settle the prayer lawsuit Thursday and take the fight to the Supreme Court instead.
Former commissioner Robin Frazier urged the board of commissioners not to settle the prayer lawsuit Thursday and take the fight to the Supreme Court instead. (Mary Grace Keller / Carroll County Times)

We know that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners is feeling the heat from citizens over its decision to settle a lawsuit and agreement not to lead prayers at their meetings. But the law was not on their side and the likelihood of them losing the case at a higher court was pretty high.

Carroll County has been fighting this lawsuit for years, dating back to a previous group of commissioners, but at the end of the day taxpayer funded government bodies should not espouse religious views and publicly host non-secular activities. Commissioners are there to represent every constituent, and promoting religion shows favoritism to a certain part of the electorate. It’s not fair to thrust these beliefs on people with different ways of thinking — and the most recent case law backs that up.

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In 2013, two county residents filed a lawsuit against the commissioners in the U.S. District Court of Maryland arguing that the prayers violated their First Amendment Rights. A subsequent decision in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals supported that assertion.

In Lund v. Rowan County, three residents demanded the Rowan County, N.C., Board of Commissioners also stop opening government meetings with commissioner-led prayers, which the plaintiffs said promoted Christian beliefs over those of other religions, or people who are atheists. The Fourth Circuit ordered the commission to halt the practice.

The judges wrote: “When a seat of government begins to resemble a house of worship, the values of religious observance are put at risk, and the danger of religious division rises accordingly." We couldn’t say it any better.

Already, the issue of prayer has created a charged and ugly partisan political fight in Carroll County, with some Republicans reminding commissioners that the majority of their constituents are conservative and Christian. So, that means the other residents don’t matter?

It would not have been responsible for the commissioners to continue their pursuit of public prayer given the Rowan County decision and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review that case. Some commissioners said the likelihood of losing in court influenced their decision to settle the lawsuit. As part of the settlement, they must pay the plaintiffs $125,000. Why continue on and let even more legal fees mount?

Those angry with the commissioners point to a divided Supreme Court decision in 2014 that ruled city councils and other legislative bodies can begin their meetings with prayer even it leans toward a particular religion. But the circumstances of that case were different from the practice in Carroll County. Among other things, the 2014 case involved a council in New York state that invited local clergy and laypeople to give prayers. Carroll’s practice was more analogous to the Rowan County case in that the commissioners themselves led the prayers. That may seem like a fine distinction, but the courts have generally found that the limits of religion in government are highly dependent on circumstances, as in the recent Supreme Court decision allowing the Bladensburg Peace Cross to stay on public land in Prince George’s County in large part because the government only acquired the monument incidentally and after the fact.

None of that prohibits people from expressing their religious views. That right is very much protected. The various legal decisions don’t mean that people are not entitled to their religious beliefs or that there is no room for Christianity, Judiasm, Islam or any other religion within the chambers of city hall or even in the middle of a school yard. People are fully welcome to exercise their rights to religious freedom by praying privately in their government offices, quietly at their school desks and even at their seats during a county commissioners meeting. A group can even hold their own prayer vigil on the lawn before a school board meeting. Just don’t put it in the hands of lawmakers to lead the effort, and certainly don’t force those views on others. In Maryland, the state Senate hosts leaders from different religions to open its sessions and has rules against sectarian messages (references to Jesus or Allah, for example), which is at least a reasonable attempt at compromise and inclusiveness. (Though not always successful; references to Jesus do occasionally slip in.)

Some Carroll County residents have threatened to show their consternation at the polls and vote commissioners out of office. This latest turn of events offers no reason for that. The commissioners’ views on the matter are still very much in line with their constituents’ conservative values — their fiscally conservative ones, that is. More appeals would probably have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars with little chance for success. And complying with the settlement means holding a moment of silence at the beginning of a meeting rather than a prayer — something the current commissioners have been doing anyway. We wonder what the people mad about this decision really care about: prayer or picking fights?

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