Proposed state-wide religion bill raises constitutional questions

Last week two representatives from Rowan County filed a bill declaring an official state religion for the state of N.C., its towns and counties.
“Silly as it might sound, in the early days of the republic, there actually were states that had their own religion. Chief Justice Rehnquist used to refer to this in some of his establishment clause opinions,” said Mark Gibney, Belk distinguished professor of political science at UNC Asheville.
The two representatives wrote this resolution, known as the Defense of Religion Act, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued Rowan County commissioners for opening their meetings with Christian prayers claiming the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.
“Of course we have progressed since then and what these county commissioners are doing is clearly, and I do mean clearly, unconstitutional.  These are violations of the establishment clause,” said Gibney, who teaches constitutional law.
By Joanna Woodson – [email protected] – Staff Writer
About five people reported being made uncomfortable by the prayers, saying they felt like outsiders and that the board of commissioners favored Christians.
In 2011, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case that boards can use an invocation, but the prayer has to be nonsectarian.
The claim Rep. Carl Ford of China Grove and Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury made was the Constitution prohibits the federal government from establishing an official national religion, but it does not apply to individual states.
“The 14th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction amendments after the Civil War, was all about incorporating the first 10 amendments, making them effective upon the states as well,” said Darin Waters, visiting assistant professor of the history department at UNCA.
Republicans now have control of the N.C. governor’s office, the Senate and the House. This is the first time a party other than the Democratic Party has had complete control of the state since the 1890s.
“I think there seems to be a trend within the country right now of states trying to reassert their authority, trying to gain some flexibility from the federal government for what they can do and what they cannot do,” Waters said.
Waters said the proposal raised eyebrows all across the nation. Some said they perceived this as a threat second only to secession.
“This was just an absolute crazy idea,” Waters said. “The Constitution prohibits this, but they were trying to focus on the fact that the wording of the Constitution is that Congress can pass no law prohibiting it.”
Waters said this was something the nation would expect from Texas, but not usually from North Carolina.
Maiah Redelfs, a junior literature student at UNCA and a member of CRU, (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ) said she does not agree with the resolution because it could lead to oppression of outsiders.
“I think it’s silly and almost disrespectful for them to open up with a prayer if they are in mixed company. To just spring that on people, as a Christian, I don’t think that’s right,” she said.
Redelfs grew up in Africa and said she felt like an outsider when she came to America.
“I didn’t feel as though I was an American, so when we did the Pledge of Allegiance, I didn’t stand up. I remained respectfully quiet. In that situation, there is a way to be respectful without participating,” Redelfs said.
She said both sides have a lack of thought for the other side’s sake.
“The Christian people could always pray before the meetings. That is an option. But the people who are not Christian could always be quiet and respectful, that’s also an option,” she said. “I would go with the praying beforehand.”
The “Lemon Test,” named after the Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman, was created for situations such as this to decide whether a state has overstepped its First Amendment boundaries.
The test goes as follows: first, the law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose. Second, the principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute or policy must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of government with religion.
The Defense of Religion proposal did not meet any of the criteria.
House Speaker Thom Tillis of Charlotte killed the bill on Thursday. It will not come to a vote.
“You can’t just assign a religion to a group of people,” Redelfs said. “That’s an individual decision.”