What kind of prayer is appropriate at official meetings?

Carroll County is a small, rural county in northern Maryland. Its local board of commissioners has become news because of its insistence on starting board meetings with prayers to Jesus.

After a federal judge ordered the board to stick with nonsectarian prayers, some council members refused. The judge's order was twice defied in prayers uttered at the beginning of subsequent board meetings.

While it is encouraging that the majority of commissioners finally voted to follow the judge's order temporarily, the issue still resonates with the whole question of religious liberty, which is the subject of a number of court cases.

What I find most interesting is board member Richard Rothschild's contention that following the judge's rule would violate his religious beliefs. The ruling would force him "to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God."

I would make two points. First, he can acknowledge the Son of God as often as he wants in many disparate venues. He can do so outside on the steps of the meeting house before or after the meeting. He can do so in private conversations with meeting participants on the floor of the chamber. He can stand on a soapbox in the middle of downtown Westminster, Md., and proclaim his dedication to the Son of God. Why is it necessary to offend and in some way to disparage the beliefs of others -- or their lack of belief -- by intoning a prayer to the Christian God at the beginning of a meeting to conduct secular county business?

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I would make one further point. My own understanding of what my Christian faith requires is guided by the words of Scripture that some may find relevant: "By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35); and "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

I would also like to recommend a Baltimore Sun editorial on the subject, which I believe provides some well-reasoned points for consideration. One of its most significant points is the value of following the law. That actually brings up another quote from Scripture: "Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17).

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