Legislative prayer ruling felt in Maryland

A federal judge has lifted a temporary injunction he issued in March, reasoning at the time that invocations offered in Jesus’ name at public meetings would likely be found unconstitutional.

By Bob Allen

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing sectarian prayers at government meetings had immediate impact in a Baltimore suburb, where a federal judge lifted a temporary injunction on county commissioners engaged in a similar dispute.

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners will consult with attorneys about the impact of a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling May 5 upholding an upstate New York town’s use of mostly Christian prayers before deciding whether to return to its former policy of opening meetings with prayers offered in Jesus’ name.

carroll haven Shoemaker“We probably need to meet with counsel and discuss the ramifications of the Supreme Court decision and take it from there before we fly off the handle,” commissioner Haven Shoemaker told the Carroll County Times.

Shoemaker, an attorney and member of Westminster Baptist Church, said the Supreme Court decision vindicated the commission’s practice.

“It demonstrates the time-honored tradition, going back to the days of the founders, of the notion of legislative prayer,” Shoemaker said. “I was happy with the decision. I think it’s one that we anticipated.”

Last May the American Humanist Association sued the county on behalf of a group of local residents who consider opening government proceedings with sectarian prayer “divisive and exclusionary, leaving them to conclude that they are unwelcome at board meetings and political outsiders in their own community.”

One plaintiff, identified as a practicing Roman Catholic, said he believes the practice violates his religious liberty by “advancing a version of Christianity that is historically anti-Catholic.”

In March U.S. District Judge William Quarles issued a preliminary injunction allowing the commission to open meetings with non-sectarian invocations while enjoining the county “from invoking the name of any specific deity associated with any specific faith or belief” in prayers given at board meetings.

Quarles lifted the injunction just hours after the Supreme Court confirmed it is constitutional for the town of Greece, N.Y., to open its board meetings with mostly Christian prayers.

Monica Miller, a lawyer with the American Humanist Association, told the Baltimore Sun the two cases are not identical, in part because Carroll commissioners themselves offer the prayer rather than calling on outside clergy.

"Unlike in the town of Greece, where even an atheist could give an invocation, in this case you have a very exclusive policy," Miller said.

carroll richard RothschildCarroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild termed the Supreme Court decision a “victory for prayer in America.”

“I believe this case sets the pendulum where it belongs,” Rothschild told the Carroll County Times. “For decades now, we’ve been hearing about this so-called ‘separation of church and state’ as an argument to try to silence certain types of prayer under the First Amendment.”

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