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.
Nathan C. Walker is associate director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. This article was originally published by Sightings of The Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School. To comment, email Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com.