A national humanist group is asking a federal judge in Baltimore to hold the elected leaders of a rural Maryland county in contempt and fine them $30,000 for violating his order barring them from opening meetings with sectarian prayers.
The Washington-based American Humanist Association gave Carroll County Commissioner Robin Frazier a pass last week when she defied U.S. District Judge William Quarles’ preliminary injunction by reciting a prayer invoking Jesus Christ. But the association claimed on Wednesday that the board again violated the order this week by authorizing an ally to deliver an overtly Christian prayer from the audience at a meeting Tuesday morning.
The man who offered that prayer, retired U.S. Government Printing Office worker Bruce Holstein, 69, denied that he prayed at the behest of any county official.
“Nobody authorized me to do anything. I did it on my own,” Holstein said.
The prayer dispute reflects the conservative bent of the all-Republican Board of Carroll County Commissioners, headquartered in Westminster, about 45 miles northwest of Baltimore. Last year, the five commissioners voted unanimously to make English the official language of the county government, partly in response to a growing Latino immigrant population.
Association lawyers filed their contempt motion Tuesday on behalf of four Carroll County citizens who are suing the commissioners for allegedly violating the First Amendment by opening meetings with prayers containing words such as “Jesus,” ”Savior” and “Lamb of God.”
The county and its lawyer, David C. Gibbs of Bartonville, Texas, declined to comment on the contempt motion. Instead, they referred to a statement the county issued last week, expressing confidence that a similar case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the town of Greece, N.Y., will be decided in favor of Carroll County’s position that the prayers are personal expressions of faith, not government speech.
The prayer duty rotates among the five commissioners. Some routinely offer overtly Christian prayers while others pray to a less specific deity, heeding an official county guideline discouraging sectarian prayer. The court found that at least 40 percent of the opening prayers in 2011 and 2012 contained sectarian references.
Frazier willfully violated the March 25 injunction on March 27, saying she was willing to go to jail for her beliefs. The plaintiffs chose not to seek a contempt order last week, even though they considered her actions “pretty outrageous,” association attorney David Niose said.
“We thought, ‘Perhaps she’s just caught up in the emotion of it’, but we gave her a chance,” he said.
Board President David H. Roush opened Tuesday’s meeting with a nonsectarian prayer, as is his custom. After the Pledge of Allegiance, he asked for public comments, a routine item on the agenda.
Holstein stood and, in a speech addressed to Judge Quarles, asked for blessings “in Jesus’ name.”
Holstein acknowledged on Wednesday that he is the treasurer for Commissioner Richard Rothschild’s re-election campaign. But he denied the association’s speculation that his prayer was encouraged by Rothschild or any board member.
“I can’t believe they’re going to try and censor a citizen from talking to a judge at a public meeting just because they don’t like the words, ‘Jesus Christ’. That’s their problem, not mine,” he said.
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