Across the decades of my ministry and advocacy to protect religious freedom, I have heard and seen it all: fanciful claims that the First Amendment did not create boundaries between institutions of religion and government, countless legislative proposals to give one religion a special status in this land, redefinitions of religious freedom meant to subvert freedom for everybody and establish freedom only for some.
However, never have I seen a proposal as blatantly unconstitutional as a bill recently introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly. This ludicrous proposal would have the North Carolina legislature declare that establishing a state religion could be done without violating the United States Constitution, which unambiguously prohibits “an establishment of religion,” by claiming that part of the Constitution simply does not apply to the state of North Carolina.
Religious freedom has always been in trouble in America. Indeed, that is why the First Amendment was adopted. Incredibly, once here, people who had experienced religious persecution in other places and come to this land seeking religious freedom almost immediately sought to impose their religion on minorities in their new homeland. Thankfully, the founders of our nation saw that religious freedom is essential as a foundation for democracy.
The North Carolina General Assembly’s resolution in “defense of religion” neither truly defends religion, nor does it show any grasp of the reality of our laws, to say nothing of a historic understanding of the meaning of religious freedom. Despite Supreme Court precedent set more than half a century ago that says otherwise, the bill claims the Constitution does not actually bar individual states “from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.” Also, authors of this legislative proposal misunderstand the authority of our court system if they believe they can write legislation that allows them to ignore federal court rulings related to the establishment of religion.
I was even more shocked to read the section of the bill citing the 10th Amendment in a way that so misunderstands its intent that it is almost comical. The authors of the bill claim the First Amendment only applies to the federal government and the 10th Amendment empowers them to ignore it. One could debunk this theory just by citing the volumes of court cases that prove otherwise, but as stated earlier, the authors seem to have little, if any, respect for our courts.
I am thankful their interpretation is not actually true—otherwise the state of North Carolina might still be segregated and interracial marriage might still be illegal there. It is not too difficult to imagine that, if this bill goes forward, we could once again see attempts to deny people their basic civil rights.
Setting aside obvious unconstitutional grandstanding, the bigger issue fueling this legislation is one our nation must address. The bill itself is a hyper-response to a spate of court rulings that have invalidated several North Carolina county boards’ practices of opening sessions with almost exclusively Christian, sectarian prayers. These rulings have been taken by some to be an attack on Christianity. As a Christian minister who values prayer, I can say unequivocally I do not share this view. Unfortunately, a vocal minority of Americans—even some in positions of leadership at all levels in our government—believe that we are a “Christian nation.” Yet, what those who hold this belief forget is that there is good reason that our Founding Fathers did not establish Christianity as the faith of our nation. Ironically, if they had, likely most of the advocates of our being a Christian nation would not have been pleased with the founders’ choice of a denomination. Seriously, and more importantly, it is the lack of an established religion that has enabled Christianity, among other religions, to flourish with a freedom in our nation unparalleled in any other nation in the world.
I hope you join me in giving thanks for religious freedom in this land, but, for goodness sake, do not ever take this freedom for granted.