By Robert Dilday, The Religious Herald, with BJC staff reports

County governing boards in Maryland and North Carolina are under fire for giving preference to Christian prayers in opening official meetings, joining a growing number of others in the region whose official prayer practices have been challenged.

Two residents of Carroll County, Md., filed suit May 1 in U.S. District Court, saying the commissioners’ sectarian prayers violate the First Amendment. During 2011 and 2012, the board of commissioners opened its meetings on at least 54 separate occasions with prayers referring to “Jesus,” “Savior” and the Lord’s Prayer, according to the lawsuit.

None of the prayers referred to “non-Christian deities or used non-Christian language,” the lawsuit says.

Doug Howard, president of the five-member board, told The Baltimore Sun the prayers — which rotate among commissioners at each meeting — pass constitutional muster.

“It is simply that commissioner’s individual thoughts,” Howard told the Sun.

In May 2012, some watchdog groups were concerned when one Carroll County commissioner emailed an invitation to about 850 government employees to attend a monthly prayer session, to be led by her in the basement of the county office building. And three months earlier the board ran into opposition when it asked employees to attend a seminar on the Maryland Constitution, led by a conservative Christian minister.

In Union County, N.C., the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the board of commissioners a letter in February and another in May calling its sectarian prayers unconstitutional, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Since 2011, sectarian prayers by government bodies in at least four North Carolina counties and one in Virginia have been challenged. In two — Forsyth County, N.C., and Pittsylvania County, Va. — courts ruled that, while official opening prayers are permissible, the First Amendment requires that they be non-sectarian.

The suburbanization — and accompanying diversity and shifts in cultural norms — of counties like Carroll and Union may partly explain the increased challenges to official sectarian prayers.

Union County Commissioner Jonathan Thomas told the Observer he was shocked the county had to deal with criticism over the invocations in a community where “most people on a Sunday morning are in some type of Christian setting.”

On April 1, two legislators introduced a resolution in the North Carolina House of Representatives asserting the state is not prohibited from establishing an official religion. The measure was effectively killed April 4 when Speaker Thom Tillis said it would not come up for a vote.

From the May 2013 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.