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Motion for contempt filed against Carroll County, Md., commissioners

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WESTMINSTER, Md. – Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a motion of contempt Tuesday evening in a U.S. District Court of Maryland prayer case filed against the Carroll County Commissioners.

The motion seeks fines of $30,000 from the defendants and requests that Judge William D. Quarles Jr. to also rule that further violations of a preliminary injunction forbidding sectarian prayers at public meetings will result in an additional $10,000 fine for each violation.

A sectarian prayer offered by a private citizen at the commissioner's budget meeting Tuesday morning, prompted the filing of the contempt motion by attorneys for the American Humanist Association, on behalf of a number of Carroll County residents who are plaintiffs in the case. Quarels, Jr. of the U.S. District Court of Maryland issued the preliminary injunction on March 26 which prohibited Carroll County officials “from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any specific faith or belief in prayers given at [Board] meetings” for the duration of the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the commissioners referred questions about contempt action to attorneys for the defense. Those attorneys have been contacted, but have yet to reply.

On Tuesday, after commissioners opened their meeting with a non-sectarian prayer, Bruce Holstein,who identified himself as a private citizen, but who is reportedly the campaign manager of one of the commissioners, spoke during the public comment part of the meeting. After reading a statement that was “harshly critical of the court order, even saying that he was 'overruling' the federal court, he ended his speech with a prayer specifically referencing Jesus Christ. The commissioners made no attempt to interrupt or stop Holstein’s speech or prayer, according to Maggie Ardiente, spokesperson for the AHA.

“Yesterday’s prayer comes just a few days after one of the commissioners, Robin Frazier, opened a board meeting by expressing objections to the judge’s order and saying a Christian prayer in defiance of the court order,” Ardiente said.

Judge Quarles granted the preliminary injunction on March 25. It stated that the county (commissioners and other county officials) were forbidden to open the meetings with any sectarian prayer. Specifically, the county was told not to invoke the name of a specific deity associated with any specific faith.

“We regret this action had to be taken, but the commissioners have now broken the law twice,” said Monica Miller, attorney for the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “We thought Commissioner Frazier’s recitation of a sectarian prayer was a one-time incident. It’s now clear that she and the other Carroll County commissioners insist on continuing the practice of sectarian prayers at board meeting regardless of the court order.”

Bruce Hake, a plaintiff in the case, and an immigration attorney from New Windsor, Md., confirmed that the contempt motion was filed Tuesday evening. He said the mechanics for filing the motion was complicated.

"As a lawyer I took a public oath to uphold the law and the Constitution, of both Maryland and the United States, and I have always upheld that solemn oath, which I swore to God," Hake said. "The Carroll County commissioners took a similar oath. I expected them to object to the order from a U.S. federal judge to stop sectarian prayers. But I'm genuinely amazed, and discouraged, to see them take their defiance so far. It's clear they're receiving bad legal advice from all directions and/or are just deliberately breaking the law. I think it's both."

On March 27, Commissioner Robin Frazier, read a prayer she mistakenly attributed to George Washington. Attorneys for plaintiffs issued a warning letter to the defendants that a further violation of the court order would result in a motion for contempt.

At the April 1, morning budget meeting, after the commissioners opened the meeting with a non-sectarian prayer, they opened the meeting to public comment. A man, who identified himself as a citizen of the county, but was later identified by Hake as Bruce Holstein, a former campaign manager for one of the commissioners, read from a written statement.

"Mr. Holstein spoke for over two minutes, with the prayer portion of the statement comprising the last 50 seconds of his speech," the motion for contempt states. "He was not interrupted at any time by the commissioners."

The matter is awaiting action by Judge Quarles.

To video of April 1 meeting, go to: http://carrollcountymd.iqm2.com/Citizens/SplitView.aspx?Mode=Video&MeetingID=1955&AgendaID=1795&FileFormat=pdf&Format=Agenda&MediaFileFormat=wmv

The motion for contempt is located here: http://americanhumanist.org/system/storage/2/88/f/5071/20140402_MotionForContempt_Merged.pdf

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