Officials at a county in Maryland have agreed to settle a lawsuit challenging their policy of opening meetings with Christian prayers.
The Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in late August to end the lawsuit, despite protests from some residents who attended a recent commissioners meeting.
The county was sued in 2013 by several residents represented by the American Humanist Association (AHA). They argued that the board’s policy of opening meetings with Christian prayers led by commissioners was a violation of separation of religion and government.
A federal court struck down the policy in 2014. The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the use of sectarian prayers before government meetings in the case Greece v. Galloway, but the high court specified that local governments should give all religious groups an opportunity to speak. In Carroll County the prayers were always Christian, so the lawsuit, Hake v. Carroll County, continued.
The Carroll County Times reported that the commissioners were worried about spending taxpayer funds on the lawsuit.
“For me, it comes down to the responsibility we have to all the citizens of Carroll, and what we didn’t hear today is the myriad of emails we got from other folks in our county who are very much challenged by the fact that we do have the real good possibility of spending upwards of three-quarter to half-a-million dollars to pursue this,” Commissioner Stephen Wantz said during the meeting.
A local Republican Party official urged the board to continue the case.
“Please support your fellow Republicans and don’t do this,” Katherine Adelaide of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, said. “I consider it blackmail by two Democrats on the Democratic Central Committee, who are represented by the humanist coalition. You are not to represent them, you are to represent us. You are to have a backbone and a spine and take a stand today.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the board has agreed to stop holding commissioner-led prayers before meetings. It now opens its deliberations with a moment of silence. The county will also pay the AHA $125,000 in legal fees.
In an editorial, The Times asserted that the board had done the right thing.
“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,” observed the newspaper. “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.’”