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Imagine driving from Northern Virginia to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and as you hit the state line, you see a large highway sign that reads: “Welcome To North Carolina: A Christian State,” complete with an iconic image of Jesus on a cross.
This incredible scenario could become a reality if misguided lawmakers in Raleigh succeed in passing a bill that says the state and all of its subsidiary groups (including public schools) are free to make any laws they choose regarding religion. That’s right; they could even declare an official faith.
House Joint Resolution 494, known was the “Rowan County Defense of Religion Act,” makes the claim that “each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
The measure was filed on April 1, but it’s no April Fools’ joke. Instead, it’s a brash statement straight out of the antebellum era, and it would permit state and local governments to ignore portions of the First Amendment with which they do not agree. It assumes that the U.S. Constitution applies only to the actions of the federal government.
This is an intriguing argument that just might work, if not for a little conflict known as the Civil War, which put to rest the idea that states’ rights could trump federal laws. Indeed, the 14th Amendment was passed in large measure to make sure the Bill of Rights applies to the states.
There are now a slew of federal court rulings backing up the notion that Supreme Court rulings supersede state law. Of course, State Reps. Carl Ford (R) and Harry Warren (R), who introduced this measure, think they have an answer for that problem, too.
The bill declares: “the North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
So what prompted this radical activity?
The North Carolina ACLU has sued the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for opening its sessions with sectarian prayers. The civil liberties group is representing three county residents who object to the local government’s preferential treatment for Christianity.
Some legislators apparently see nothing wrong with this sort of unconstitutional and exclusionary activity, so they introduced their nullification-themed proposal in response.
Unfortunately, the idea of ignoring portions of the U.S. Constitution that politicians find inconvenient is nothing new. Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, sometimes known as the “Ten Commandments judge,” was eventually booted from office for his refusal to remove a 2.5-ton Decalogue monument from the Alabama judicial building. He claimed that a reference to God in the Alabama Constitution’s preamble means that he is free to promote religion in “his” courthouse.
(Moore has been wrong about many constitutional issues over the years, and that opinion is just one of his many mistakes. Nonetheless, Alabama voters just last year put him back into the top judicial post in the state.)
Lawmakers in North Carolina have indicated that their nullification nuttiness may not go too far, notwithstanding endorsements from nine Republican members of the North Carolina House of Representatives, including Majority Leader Edgar Starnes (R). Lead sponsor Warren has admitted his handiwork may still not advance beyond committee.
Whatever happens to this bill, it reflects a deeply troubling mindset prevalent in legislatures throughout this country. Many politicians believe that church-state separation does not apply to their state and support the idea that the majority rules on matters of faith, even if that’s not what U.S. law says.
Given the number of states currently ruled by the Religious Right, the tea party and assorted political collaborators, it’s only a matter of time before some really bad measures become law. Some will then get to the U.S. Supreme Court, and state officials will have to figure out whether to obey the rulings.
In fact, lots of bills that threaten the wall of separation between church and state have been introduced this year, and many are moving forward. We have seen a rash of so-called “school choice” proposals that subsidize religious schools with taxpayer dollars. Other schemes promote coercive prayer and proselytizing at public school events and creationist concepts in science classes. Some bills have sought to impose draconian restrictions on abortion.
Those who seek to tear down the religious freedom protections guaranteed by the First Amendment are always hard at work.
It’s frightening for those who care about true religious freedom, even if those North Carolina “defenders of religion” lose this round.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.