Carroll County board challenged over Christian prayers

"In the name of my savior, I pray," is how one Carroll County commissioner concluded his prayer to open a recent meeting of the county's governing board.

Now two county residents are asking a federal judge to end what they say is the board's regular practice of opening meetings with prayers that are "frequently Christian in nature."

In a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Neil Ridgely of Finksburg and Bruce Hake of Union Bridge say invocations of "Jesus" and "the savior" by county commissioners during public meetings violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Hake, a lawyer, identified himself as a practicing Roman Catholic.

"The commissioners are violating my rights," he said Friday. "It is a constant thorn in my side that they do this."

Ridgely and Hake say the commissioners gave prayers with "Christian references" at least 54 times in the last two years. None during that time mentioned "non-Christian deities or used non-Christian language," they say in their lawsuit.

Members of the all-Republican county Board of Commissioners said they believe their invocations — they take turns from meeting to meeting — pass constitutional muster.

"It is simply that commissioner's individual thoughts," said Doug Howard, president of the five-member board. "I am totally comfortable with what we are doing."

Commissioner Haven Shoemaker said the lawsuit likely "has less to do with being offended by prayer than it does with partisan politics."

Ridgely and Hake, both Democrats, have opposed commissioners on other issues.

Ridgely said he has filed about 50 Public Information Act requests with the board and filed an open-meetings complaint upheld last year by a state panel.

Hake took exception to the board's decision this year to declare English the county's official language.

The case law on prayer by government officials is voluminous. The issue, University of Baltimore law professor Eric Easton says, is whether a prayer favors one set of beliefs over another.

"It's a real sliding scale," Easton said. "Nobody can say with certainty. The closer this prayer comes to proselytizing, the closer it comes to advancing one sect over another" — and the more likely it is to run afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which bars government from establishing a religion.

Ridgely, a former county employee, is a member of the Democratic Central Committee of Carroll County; Hake is a former member.

They say their motivation is not political. They say the prayers are sectarian and exclude people.

Hake says they create a "hostile environment" that could harm his law practice and other businesses.

Ridgely said he did not adhere to organized religion.

"I believe in God, good deeds, and that's it," he said. "And peace."

He said the board members could refer to a "creator" in prayers.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild called Ridgely "a very active and vocal opponent of this conservative board of commissioners." He said he is "confident that the Carroll County commissioners are going to prevail."

Hake and Ridgely are not the first to take issue with the commissioners' prayers. The American Humanist Association in Washington sent a letter to the commissioners last year citing an appeals court ruling against a legislative body in North Carolina that used similar prayers.

William Burgess, director of the association's legal center, said he didn't receive a reply from the county. He is seeking to join the legal team representing Ridgely and Hake.

Burgess said concerns about prayers by local government arise regularly.

"It is surprisingly common around the country," he said. He said the center is contacted by people around the country "six or seven times a year."

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Christian legal aid group Liberty Counsel, hailed a pair of recent victories by municipalities on prayer issues.

Lakeland, Fla., won its case when a federal appeals court ruled that city policy provided for speakers from varied sources. And Lancaster, Calif., won when an appeals court ruled that neither the city's record nor its policies showed it was favoring Christianity.

In a separate case, The Baltimore Sun is among news organizations seeking to join the Carroll County Times as defendants in a petition by the commissioners asking a judge to uphold the county's practice of redacting email addresses from Maryland Public Information Act requests.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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