N. Carolina has power to establish official religion, resolution says
Republican state Reps. Carl Ford and Harry Warren filed the measure this week as Rowan commissioners gear up to fight a lawsuit that seeks to end their habit of opening meetings with specifically Christian prayers.
But the resolution delved deeper.
It acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from creating an official religion.
But the First Amendment prohibition, the resolution argues, doesn't apply to states, counties or towns, despite federal court rulings to the contrary. It asks the Legislature to adopt a resolution supporting their right to set up their own religious laws.
But even the evangelist Rev. Franklin Graham and other religious leaders disagreed, saying that it wouldn't be a good idea to establish a state religion.
Graham, however, supported the right of governments to have prayer before meetings.
Media from NBC News to the Huffington Post have weighed in with stories calling the resolution borderline "neo-secessionist" and drawing thousands of comments.
Religious scholars and the Christian community in North Carolina said Wednesday that they believe the law is fairly clear on the issue - and that it would be harmful for any faith if it was made an official religion.
Ford, the resolution's primary sponsor, declined comment when approached by a Charlotte Observer reporter Wednesday. He told the Salisbury Post earlier in the day that he didn't expect the resolution to get so much attention.
"We're not starting a church. We're not starting a religion. We're supporting the county commissioners in their freedom of speech," Ford told the Post.
Warren deferred questions to Ford. He later issued a statement saying the resolution was solely to support the Rowan commissioners.
"The resolution is not an effort to establish a state religion and should not be interpreted as such," he stated.
Resolutions like the Defense of Religion Act generally have no lasting effect beyond the legislative sessions, do not require the governor's signature and are commonly used to create study commissions or honor groups like veterans. If passed, it would not become a law.
Still, the legislators' efforts drew quick criticism from liberal and civil liberties groups.
"There's no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That's true whether it's North Carolina or the federal government," said Michael Keegan, president of the liberal People For the American Way foundation. "Our nation was founded on the premise that church and state both benefit from a clear 'wall of separation.'"
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping a group of Rowan County residents sue the commissioners, called the resolution misguided.
Regardless of the Constitution, several scholars and religious leaders said establishing a state religion is not a good way to protect any faith.
Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest School of Divinity, said the Baptist church recognized as far back as 1612 that independence from government was important.
"It will kill faith," he said.
Tom Currie, dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary's Charlotte campus, agreed.
"I think the establishment of a religion is deadly. Not just deadly for people who are not of that religion, but it's deadly to the religion itself," he said. "Faith is only really vital and relevant when it is able to stand on its own. It becomes small and trivial when it becomes an arm of the government."
But the resolution did succeed in creating statewide discussion over the Rowan County commissioners lawsuit.
The act is intended to support commissioners' fight to keep their Christian prayers before meetings, which often used phrases like "in Jesus' name" and said that Jesus is the only way to salvation, according to the lawsuit filed in March.
The ACLU had asked commissioners for more than a year to end the practice of Christian prayer before meetings.
The issue has drawn support on both sides in Rowan County. A church in the area is buying space on 40 billboards throughout the county to support the commissioners, WCNC reported last week.
Some faith leaders said Wednesday they agreed. Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte, said he was certain establishing an official religion is unconstitutional, but felt county commissioners should be allowed to pray how they wished.
"We really take the wrong approach when we just try to tell people that they can't pray in Jesus' name. Why not just allow people the freedom to express themselves?" he said. "I don't think that Christians should be required to check their faith at the door when they go in to a public arena."
Graham said the issue of prayer before meetings was a completely separate one from establishing official religions.
"Having a religious prayer to open a meeting is not state-sponsored religion," he said.
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