Secular victory: Federal judge bars Christian prayers at county meetings

In a significant victory for the separation of church and state, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners in Maryland must refrain from opening their meetings with Christian prayers.

Judge William D. Quarels, Jr. of the U.S. District Court of Maryland issued a preliminary injunction to stop sectarian prayers held before meetings of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, after plaintiffs alleged the practice of permitting Commissioners to deliver prayers that reference Jesus Christ during county meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Judge Quarels ruled that Carroll County officials are prohibited “from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any specific faith or belief in prayers given at [Board] meetings”

Religion Clause reports the Carroll County Board’s voluntary guidelines for commissioners calls for them to “refrain from using Jesus, Jesus Christ, Savior, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God and the like.”  However, during 2011-2012, at least 40% of the invocations contained sectarian Christian references, while no prayers made non-Christian sectarian references.

In finding that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their Establishment Clause claim, the court said in part:

Although the podium guidelines discourage sectarian references, the Board has made no effort to curb the frequent sectarian references made by its own Commissioners…. At this time, the record indicates that the prayers invoked by Commissioners before Board meetings advance one religion to the exclusion of others.

Monica Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, said the judge’s preliminary injunction indicates that he believes the sectarian prayers are causing irreparable harm and are unconstitutional. Miller went on to say that residents feel excluded from commissioners meetings because of the Christian prayers, and that removing sectarian prayers would make the meetings more inclusive, noting:

“Non-Christians, who are necessarily excluded by such sectarian Christian prayers, feel like religious outsiders and second-class citizens in their own community.”

Commenting on the secular victory, David Niose, legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said “Invocations at public meetings must not be sectarian, and that rule was clearly broken by the county here.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case raising similar issues involving sectarian prayers at public meetings. A decision in that case is expected before the end of June.

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