Bid For State Religion Fails -- Sightings (Nathan Walker)

When I first heard about an attempt by a group of North Carolina legislators to establish a state religion for that state in direct challenge to the U.S. Constitution I was both surprised and not so surprised.  It's not the first time that groups have argued for the primacy of state's rights.  But this seems a rather flagrant violation.  Fortunately saner heads prevailed and the effort failed.  What is interesting in all of this -- as Nathan Walker points out -- North Carolina was a leader in disestablishment -- disestablishing the Church of England in 1776 -- fifteen years prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights.  Besides that, when readmitted to the Union under the 14th Amendment, North Carolina agreed that they would abide by the U.S. Constitution.

I invite you to read this piece, but also consider what religious liberty really means.  When does an infringement on religious freedom occur?  We're seeing a big debate over contraception, for instance, with groups claiming that the requirement to provide it in health plans is an infringement on one's religious freedoms.  This idea is being extended not only to religious organizations, like churches, but businesses owned by religious persons (Hobby Lobby, for instance).  This is a discussion that's not going away, so maybe this can be a test case.  What do you think?



Thursday |  April 11 2013

Bid for State Religion Fails

by Nathan C. Walker
According to a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, the commissioners of North Carolina’s Rowan County have, over the past five years, opened 97 percent of County Board meetings with explicitly Christian prayers. Professor Gary Freeze of Catawba College characterized these meetings as “religious revivals,” designed for the commissioners and residents to give a “shout-out for Jesus.”

Former Rowan County Board commissioner, Carl Ford, runs a local Baptist radio station and is a member of the Rowan Tea Party Patriots. In January, 2013, he began his first term as a state representative in North Carolina’s General Assembly. By his thirteenth week, he received national scrutiny for attempting to subvert the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when he and fellow Representative Harry Warren (R-Rowan), a Methodist, filed the Defense of Religion Act of 2013. This Act asserts that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit states from making laws with regard to established religion. Twelve additional representatives co-sponsored the resolution, including House Majority Leader, Edgar Starnes (R-Caldwell).

The ideology expressed in North Carolina’s Defense of Religion Act is typical of the Tenther movement. This movement, launched by Tea Party Patriots across the country, includes a series of legislative initiatives invoking the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which grants powers to state governments when these are not explicitly assigned to the federal government. Tenthers claim that the Tenth Amendment allows them to reject national regulations on guns and health care and, apparently now, to establish a state religion.

Though a Baptist like Ford, minister C. Welton Gaddy finds the Defense of Religion Act “comical,” saying that Ford and Warren “claim the First Amendment only applies to the federal government and the Tenth Amendment empowers them to ignore it.”

History reveals additional ironies. In 1776, in its first constitution, North Carolina formally disestablished the Church of England as its colonial state religion. It did so fifteen years before the states ratified the U.S. Bill of Rights ensuring that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Put simply, North Carolina was far more progressive in its disestablishment of religion than Congress.

After the Civil War, the states ratified the U.S. Constitution again in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment, whose due process clause brought the states under the umbrella of the national Bill of Rights. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed this principle in 1947 by ruling that “neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another.” North Carolina’s 2013 Defense of Religion Act, however, declares that this state “does not recognize the authority of federal judicial opinions.”

By declaring North Carolina exempt from federal judicial opinions, Ford and Warren are at odds with their own state constitution, which reads, “every citizen of this State owes paramount allegiance to the Constitution and government of the United Sates, and no law or ordinance of the State in contravention or subversion thereof can have any binding force”(Article I §5). They have also broken their swearing-in oath to “support and maintain the Constitution of the laws of the United States, and the Constitution and laws of North Carolina . . .” (Article VI §7).

Even if Ford and Warren succeeded in laying the legal framework for establishing a state religion, which one would they choose? In the county of Rowan alone, there are fourteen different Christian denominations and one Reform Jewish community. Would Ford and Warren re-establish the Church of England or legally elevate the members of their own religious traditions–the Baptists or Methodists? What status would they grant other Rowan residents, such as Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Catholics, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. What about the Reform Jews?

Though Ford and Warren were willing to ignore the North Carolina constitution which guarantees that “no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be subjected to discrimination by the State because of… religion…” (Article I §19), House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) was not. Aware that preferential treatment for a particular religion is illegal under the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions, Speaker Tillis announced on April 4, 2013, that the Act would never come to a vote, effectively killing it. By doing so, Ford and Warren were prevented from eroding the wall of separation that has stood in North Carolina for 237 years.

Abby Huntsman, “NC Resolution Controversy,” HuffPost Live interview with Professor Garby Freeze, April 4, 2013.

C. Welton Gaddy, “On religion, North Carolina boldly goes where the Constitution forbids,” April 4, 2013.

Capital Broadcasting Company, “State religion proposal dies in House,” April 4, 2013.

House Joint Resolution 494, A Joint Resolution to Proclaim the Rowan County, North Carolina, Defense of Religion Act of 2013Filed April 1, 2013.

John Celock, “North Carolina May Declare Official State Religion Under New Bill” [sic], The Huffington Post, April 3, 2013.

Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina. Filed March 12, 2013.

Nathan Hardin, “Lawmakers file Rowan County Defense of Religion Act,” Salisbury Post, April 2, 2013.

North Carolina State Constitution.
Author Nathan C. Walker is a Ph.D. Candidate in Law, Education, and Religion at Columbia University. He is the co-editor of Whose God Rules: Is the United States a Secular Nation or a Theolegal Democracy? with foreword by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Editor Myriam Renaud is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.



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