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Carroll County Commissioners revert to disputed prayer policy

WESTMINSTER -? The elected leaders of a rural Maryland county voted unanimously Thursday to revert to a disputed prayer policy following a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing clergy to invoke specific deities in opening invocations at government meetings.

Carroll County Commissioners still face a First Amendment challenge from critics who say the high court ruling doesn’t address the practice of having opening prayers said by the elected commissioners themselves, some of whom routinely invoke Jesus Christ. The plaintiffs in a pending federal lawsuit say those prayers violate the Constitution’s prohibition of establishment of a state religion because the prayers are said by government officials. It says that amounts to coercion.

The five commissioners, all Republicans, rejected that view in comments before they voted at a meeting in Westminster, about 45 miles northwest of Baltimore.

“I think that the ruling, again, upheld the constitutionality of our policy,” said Commissioner Robin Frazier.

Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, an attorney, acknowledged that the Supreme Court ruling “didn’t necessarily affirm our practice.” But he said that “as long as we’re not proselytizing or denigrating, and none of us ever have, that’s not a violation.”

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the town of Greece, New York, “does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by non-adherents.”

The commissioners voted to repeal their April resolution limiting opening prayers to nonsectarian invocations. That followed a preliminary federal court order barring them from using sectarian prayers. The U.S. District Court in Baltimore lifted the injunction Monday, citing the Supreme Court ruling.

Plaintiffs in the Maryland lawsuit have asked the court to reinstate the halt to the prayers.

“Sectarian prayers led by elected officials are outside the scope of the Greece case that was just decided by the Supreme Court,” said attorney David Niose of the American Humanist Association, which is representing several local plaintiffs.