A county commissioner in Carroll County, Md., disobeyed a judge's recent injunction on Thursday when she opened an official budget meeting with a sectarian prayer, saying she'd rather go to jail than give up her First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
Carroll County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier opened Thursday's budget meeting by referencing the recent injunction granted by U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr., who earlier this week ruled that Carroll County commissioners are prohibited from using "the name of a specific deity associated with any specific faith or belief" during pre-meeting prayers. Quarles said in his ruling that the commission may now only say non-sectarian prayers.
The injunction was granted as several Carroll County residents, along with the American Humanist Association, proceed with a civil lawsuit against the county for its pre-meeting sectarian prayers, arguing that they are official "government speech" and therefore a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause.
Commissioner Frazier opened Thursday's meeting with a prayer she said was originally from U.S. President George Washington. Frazier, growing visibly emotional during her statement, said she'd rather go to jail than give up her First Amendment rights.
"I think that [the ruling] is an infringement on my First Amendment rights of free speech and free religion, and I think it's a wrong ruling," Frazier said. "I believe this is a fundamental of America and if we cease to believe that our rights come from God, we cease to be America.
"We've been told to be careful. But we're going to be careful all the way to communism if we don't start standing up and saying 'no.'"
"This might be a good opportunity to demonstrate how our Founding Fathers, and leaders all throughout our history, have upheld the idea that we are a nation based on biblical principles," Frazier continued. "We're one nation under God, and I believe that's where our inalienable rights come from."
The county commissioner then proceeded to recite a prayer she said came from former U.S. President George Washington that invokes "Jesus Christ," "Our Lord, our God," and "merciful Father," among other religious references. William M. Ferraro, an associate editor of Washington's papers at the University of Virginia, told The Baltimore Sun Thursday that the prayer came from a book of prayers attributed to Washington from 1919, but there is no evidence that Washington actually wrote the prayer.
The American Humanist Association said it would not seek contempt charges against Frazier for violating Quarles' injunction "in the hopes that [Thursday's] behavior was simply an emotional outburst made without the benefit of serious consideration of the rights of plaintiffs and others."
"We appreciate the commissioners' individual religious freedom, and encourage them to worship as they wish in their homes and in their churches," Monica Miller, one of the lawyers representing Carroll County residents in the case, said in a statement. "We simply ask that they refrain from using the apparatus of government as a platform for their personal, sectarian religious views."
"Of course, it's entirely possible that the commissioner wishes to become a public martyr of sorts for Christianity, a celebrity upon whom religious sympathizers can bestow admiration and encouragement. If that's the case, and if she therefore ignores both the court and this warning, she will no doubt get her wish."
Board President Commissioner Dave Roush released a statement later on Thursday, following Frazier's prayer, that said the commissioners do respect Quarles' ruling, although they do not agree with it. "As constitutional officers of this county, while we disagree with the current 4th Circuit case law, we do respect the judge's position in our American legal system. As commissioners who represent every citizen of Carroll County, we continue to respect the various faiths or non-faiths of all Carroll residents."
Roush referenced the government prayer case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, Greece v. Galloway, where residents of Greece, N.Y., are contesting their city council's references to "Jesus Christ" before legislative meetings. Roush said Quarles' temporary injunction could be overturned if the Supreme Court sides with the county. A decision is expected before June.