ROCK HALL - It has been just over a year since the Rock Hall council approved a resolution allowing an opening invocation at town meetings, and Thursday night, they unanimously approved amendments to it over the objections of some audience members.
The original resolution states that due to court rulings, prayers at such public meetings must “strive to be nondenominational.” A new addition to the resolution states that invocations should not “proselytize or advance any faith over another or disparage the faiths or non-religious views of others.”
The amendments also allow for the inclusion on town agendas of a disclaimer stating that the mayor and council have not previously reviewed or approved the “views or beliefs expressed by the guest delivering the invocation” and no one attending the meeting will be required to participate in the invocation.
Mayor Bobby Willis said he wants to continue the tradition of opening Rock Hall's meetings with a prayer while upholding the separation of church and state mandates of the U.S. Constitution. He said the town has invited chaplains from various churches and organizations to give the opening invocation.
“We want to honor what is tradition in town and, at the same time, make certain that we are within the law,” he said.
Councilwoman Susan Francis said the town spent a lot time on the resolution, checking for any potential legal ramifications.
Vice Mayor Butch Price agreed with Willis on thinking it important for the town to follow through with its traditions. He said the amendments ensure that happens in a respectful manner.
Prior to the vote, audience member Grenville Whitman asked if any sort of public hearing would be held on the amended resolution. When he was told no, Whitman said he was concerned that the public did not have any time to review the amendments.
“This is the first time anybody other than council has seen any of this new language. ... You're rushing through it,” he said.
Willis spoke about amending the resolution at the March 14 town meeting, saying the issue would be discussed at the April 1 workshop. Francis and Councilman Brian Nesspor both were absent from that workshop, so Willis said it would be discussed at the April town meeting.
At Thursday's meeting, Willis said people had plenty of time to contact him with any questions or concerns about the resolution and the majority of the town favored it.
Resident David Jones agreed with Whitman that people should have a say. He suggested the council wait until the next town meeting to approve the resolution, giving people time to look over the amendments.
“I probably will agree on a lot of this [resolution]. ... And the only thing I ask is give it one month and let people read it, come back and you vote on this,” Jones told the council.
Willis said people have had two months to write in or call with their thoughts. He said he did not see any of the amendments warranting concern.
Willis said not everyone in town will agree with the resolution, but there are guidelines for those giving an invocation to follow. He said if they go outside them, they will not be invited back.
“But some of the people that have given invocations knew the guidelines and they still came in and said what they wanted to, which might have been objectionable to some people. And it's usually the same concept, so it's not like we have several different faiths being represented so to speak,” said audience member Linda Buckle.
Willis said the council has no control over the area's denomination being predominantly Christian.
Francis said the amendments expand the resolution to include any faiths practiced on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Whitman asked why the resolution needed to be amended and Francis said it was because of complaints Whitman sent to the town about it. Whitman said his letters were not about the resolution, but two instances of it being violated, one of which happened when the Lord's Prayer was said at the invocation for the December meeting.
Willis said it was time to put the matter to rest and called for a motion. Price made it and Francis seconded it.
The council closed the public comment session and further discussed the resolution.
Francis said anyone can read the amendments in about five minutes. She said if people had an issue with the resolution, they would be attending the meetings knowing the council planned to discuss it.
“If there's more people, why aren't they here having a say about this?” she asked.
Councilman Brian Jones asked what would happen if a future board has an issue with the resolution, and was told those councilmembers could amend it or strike it altogether as they see fit. He said he did not vote for the original resolution, but thought the amendments better protect the town.