North Carolina Tried to Establish a State Religion: Here’s Why It Matters
North Carolina lawmakers who tried to institute an official state religion, something that is in direct defiance of established law, are commiserating after the Republican House speaker killed the legislation. The very fact this happened, though, is still important. Here’s why.
“Defending” Religion by Breaking the Constitution
House Joint Resolution 494, or the Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013(pdf), was designed to assert that while the Constitution of the United States prohibits Congress from making laws to establish a religion, this does not apply to individual states.
The act went on to say that North Carolina “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.”
The legislation, introduced by Republican state Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford, was a response to officials in Rowan County being the subject of an ACLU lawsuit, Lund et al v. Rowan County, because they would not stop opening public meetings with a Christian prayer.
The ACLU and a number of county residents argue the decision to hold a prayer specific to one religion violates the Establishment Clause. Obviously, state lawmakers for the county decided to try change state law to head off what would otherwise be an inevitable court win for the ACLU.
However, House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Charlotte) announced Thursday afternoon that, after nearly a full week of national attention and condemnation, the bill would not receive a vote in the full House — this effectively kills the bill in its current form, for this year at least.
The Lemon Test: Shielding You From State Enshrined Religion
If the bill were to return, could it survive a court challenge? The answer is almost certainly not, because it transparently fails the three pronged “Lemon Test” which was established in the Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman.
The test provides a basis of squaring state laws against the Establishment Clause and, to take House Resolution 494 as an example, it would be framed thus: the law clearly is not neutral or for a non-religious purpose; it advances one religion, Christianity, as a primary goal; and it tangles government and religion like spaghetti on a fork. In short, it would be struck down by any reasonable court.
And yet, and here’s why North Carolina’s push to establish a religion matters: a number of states keep trying to get around federal law.
Lawmakers Decide to Ignore Federal Laws and the Constitution
Nullification. This is the term for the school of thought behind certain lawmakers believing they can disregard or subvert federal law and court rulings on hot button issues such as gun control, abortion access and LGBT nondiscrimination laws, and specific rulings like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans – and over the past few years, it’s been happening more and more.
An example of this is Mississippi, where legislators recently filed a bill that would allow the establishment of a state committee to decide which federal laws the state will follow and which ones they will simply ignore. Mississippi lawmakers maintain, despite all evidence to the contrary, that state sovereignty gives them that power.
With the North Carolina act dead in its current form, it remains to be seen whether state lawmakers have any more juice to squeeze out of this particular issue. That doesn’t mean to say the act will not return in some form in the future, and there is the very strong fear that these acts of defiance from across the nation can only escalate, costing states increasing sums in taxpayer dollars and, with all the ideological wrangling that will ensue, choking the legislative process.
What’s more, every single attempt like this threatens violence to the U.S. Constitution and the rights and principles for which it stands, and that should matter to every U.S. citizen.
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