On the same day as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), the court in Hake v. Carroll County, Maryland, No. WDQ-13-1312 (Dist. Maryland 2014), vacated a preliminary injunction it entered in March in which it enjoined Carroll County from opening its board meetings with sectarian prayers involving the names of specific deities or faiths. Unlike Greece, NY, prayers in the County are led by commissioners on a rotating basis, and not by religious clergy.
Plaintiffs sued the County alleging that it violated the Establishment Clause by promoting Christianity over other religions in that the pre-board meeting prayers “are frequently Christian in nature, making express sectarian references, such as to Jesus Christ.” The District Court entered the preliminary injunction upon its finding that Plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim, since (1) the Board’s only official policy concerning the opening prayer is found in the form of voluntary guidelines that guide prayer givers: “Refrain from using Jesus, Jesus Christ, Savior, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God and the like,” and (2) upon the court’s review, at least 40% of all audible and complete recordings of the prayers include sectarian references, all from the Christian faith, meaning that the commissioners themselves appear to have violated the guidelines. In reaching this conclusion, the District Court relied on Fourth Circuit precedent in Joyner v. Forsyth Cnty., N.C., 653 F.3d 341, 349 (4th Cir. 2011), that “the content of the prayers is a critical factor in determining whether a legislative prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause.”
In vacating the preliminary injunction, the District Court states only that it does so “[c]onsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision” in Town of Greece. Although the District Court does not elaborate any further, its prior ruling appears to be at odds with the Supreme Court’s ruling that sectarian references in legislative prayers may be constitutional if the municipality makes an honest effort to allow prayers from any faith, does not force or coerce the public into participating in the prayers, and does not promote one religion over another.