Carroll commissioner creates monthly prayer session

A Carroll County commissioner has emailed an invitation to about 850 government employees to attend a monthly prayer session, which she will lead, raising concern among some residents and watchdog groups.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier drafted the invitation and had a member of her staff send it May 3, to coincide with National Day of Prayer, a day on which the president traditionally calls on the nation to pray for peace and the country's welfare.

Frazier's first "time for prayer" is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. June 7 in the basement of the County Office Building in Westminster. The sessions will continue on the first Thursday of each month. She said she has received a few replies from those who have said they will stop by.

"We are doing something encouraging and uplifting," Frazier said.

She also sees no problem with using a county building for religious purposes, she said.

"Other groups use this same building for noncounty business," she said.

The five-member, all-Republican commissioner board has scheduled a discussion Thursday on the issue. The board does pray before its open sessions, most often with generic, nondenominational petitions. But even that has drawn opposition from groups advocating separation of church and state, such as the American Humanist Association.

"It is highly inappropriate for a government official to use his or her position to engage employees in prayer," said Bill Burgess, attorney for the American Humanist Association. "This is government promoting religion and putting pressure on subordinates."

Bonnie Grady, former president of the county Chamber of Commerce who follows county politics closely, said she does not question anyone's right to pray, but leading prayer sessions is not what voters elected Frazier to do.

"I want to be very clear: I don't have a problem with anyone praying, anytime, anywhere," she said. "In fact, in my own faith, I'm taught to pray without ceasing.

"What I do question here is Commissioner Frazier using county staff, county time, county resources, including the government email system, and especially the County Office Building, for this purpose," she said.

She wonders whether the commissioners would allow another group to use the space for a similar purpose.

"I see this as an abuse of county resources and an attempt by Frazier to further her own agenda," Grady said.

David Rocah, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Friday that holding prayer sessions is not illegal, but the practice is "treading on thin ice."

"Most employers won't permit such activities," he said. "This practice can't be limited to one favored religion. If the Druids or the atheists want to hold similar gatherings, that would have to be allowed under this policy."

Carroll's commissioners drew criticism soon after they took office and began opening their meetings with Christian prayer. They also ran into opposition in February when they asked employees to attend a seminar on the Maryland Constitution, led by a conservative Christian minister.

The latest incident is "solicitation to prayer by a county commissioner," Rocah said.

"It is easy to understand why some employees would feel pressured to attend," he said.

Frazier insists there is no pressure and she is simply reviving a practice from her first term in the office, which ended in 2002.

"I am just inviting everybody who wants to come," she said. "The Bible directs us to pray for our country."

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