The state of Maryland is 69% Christian. And while that may sound like an overwhelming number on its own, the more than 30% of non-Christian residents and residents from minority Christian denominations would disagree that the majority religious faith should dominate the community conversation. That is why my Roman Catholic colleague Bruce Hake and I filed a lawsuit, after repeated requests for non-legal resolution, against the Carroll County Board of Commissioners in 2013.
When Christian prayers launch each meeting, the board is unwelcoming to non-Christians who may otherwise be interested in attending local government events or who may even be interested in running for the Board of Commissioners or other elected offices in the community. And it’s not just the religious beliefs of the people present at each meeting that are relevant. County commissioners are elected to represent the interests of all of their constituents — not just the ones that adhere to one set of sectarian faith traditions.
The Christian prayers led by the commissioners did not exist in a vacuum. The members of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners often asked and encouraged local residents and those attending the board meetings to stand for the prayer, a request that feels more like a demand when coming from an elected authority in the county.
In December 2010, the commissioners cemented their preference for proselytization by adopting a governing principle that explicitly promised the board would “open its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a prayer.” Commissioners didn’t just pray for guidance in matters of county business; one commissioner ended his prayer asking the lord to “bless America and return her to a set of values which is pleasing to you as we start this new year.”
Before this lawsuit was filed, we and the American Humanist Association requested that the commissioners pray privately in the anteroom before coming out to the public dais; include prayers of other beliefs; or even just offer a moment of silence, private prayer or simple solitude. Instead, Commissioner Robin Frazier was so adamant in her refusal to compromise that she was quoted as saying, she would rather go to jail than not pray at meetings. So, we proceeded to litigation. Attorneys at the American Humanist Association built a case by spending hundreds of hours in interviewing participants and reviewing the pre-recorded tapes of hundreds of meetings.
In 2014, a federal court ordered the commissioners to stop opening public meetings with prayer, but they repeatedly and openly defied this order. The settlement to my lawsuit, finally agreed upon last month, means that the commissioners must maintain their most-recent practice of opening with a moment of silence or other nonreligious commemoration.
The lawsuit has nothing to do with politics or personal sentiments against that previous Carroll County Board of Commissioners. It has only to do with ignoring the rights of Carroll County citizens of other faiths, be they Jewish, Bahá'í, Muslim, Hindu or any other religion. We firmly believe in the right of people of all faiths and none to be welcome at county board meetings by the offering of a simple moment of silence for all to pray to their god or reflect on the business before the commissioners.
A public meeting is no place for division. Our community must come together, and this decision will play a role in bringing Christian residents and community members of minority faiths and no faith together in public service. We wish all in Carroll County well and are pleased that this matter, which has taken so long in maneuvering through the courts, has reached an end from which we can all move on.
Cornelius (Neil) Ridgely lives in Finksburg, Md. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.