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Humanists Score Victory in Longstanding MD Legislative Prayer Case

August 30, 2019

For Immediate Release

 

Contact:
Sarah Henry, (202) 238-9088, shenry@americanhumanist.org

 

(Washington, D.C., August 30, 2019) – The American Humanist Association (AHA) just scored a major victory for church-state separation in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, ending the nontheist organization’s long battle over legislative prayers in Carroll County, MD.  Under the pending decree, Carroll County commissioners will be permanently prohibited from delivering prayers at their public meetings.

 

Since 2010, Carroll County has opened official county board meetings with a prayer delivered by one of the five elected commissioners on a rotating basis.

“Carroll County’s prayers unconstitutionally wrapped the power and prestige of the government around the personal religious beliefs of elected officials,” explained Monica Miller, Legal Director and Senior Counsel at the American Humanist Association. “The Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit long made clear that elected officials cannot constitutionally lead the public in prayers as part of official activities.”

 

The AHA filed suit in May 2013 on behalf of four Carroll County residents, a group consisting of both humanists and Catholics. On March 26, 2014, the U.S. District Court granted AHA’s motion for a preliminary injunction forbidding the commissioners from delivering sectarian Christian prayers. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court handed down Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), which clarified that sectarian legislative prayers are permissible when they are delivered by private citizens pursuant to a neutral and non-discriminatory open forum policy that allows any citizen (including an atheist) to deliver a non-demeaning invocation of their choosing.

 

In 2016, both the American Humanist Association and Carroll County filed for summary judgment. On July 14, 2017, while those motions were pending, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that commissioner-led legislative prayers violate the Establishment Clause (Lund v. Rowan County). The AHA informed the court that the Rowan County decision is also binding on the Carroll County case. Despite the binding decision, Carroll County commissioners continued the practice of commissioner-led legislative prayers throughout the course of this lawsuit.

 

Beyond permanently enjoining Carroll County officials from delivering legislative prayers, the decree will also award plaintiffs nominal damages and fees. In addition to the American Humanist Association, the plaintiffs include Bruce Hake, Neil Ridgely, Lauren Graybill, and Judy Smith, all local residents. “The anticipated ruling vindicates the First Amendment rights of our clients and will force elected officials to finally comply with binding Establishment Clause precedent through the threat of sanctions,” Miller explained.

 

The settlement is currently pending a final order by the court.

 

Find AHA’s prior filings in the case here.

 

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The American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming worldview of humanism, which—without beliefs in gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

 

Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation and the Herb Block Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

 

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