Lawmakers in North Carolina apparently think the United States Constitution is a sometimes document. North Carolina state GOP legislators recently filed a bill that would allow the state to declare an official religion. House Bill 494 has 11 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Edgar Starnes.
The bill is in response to a federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, who opened 97% of its meetings with explicitly Christian prayers since 2007, according to the lawsuit.
The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states outright that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Establishment Clause, as it became known, was incorporated to apply to the states in the Supreme Court Decision Everson v. Board of Education in 1947. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have interpreted the Establishment Clause to restrict the promotion of a religion by state governments. With such a case history against them, what makes North Carolina lawmakers think they can get around this?
The answer is states' rights, or at least a particular interpretation of state’s rights. The bill’s actual text reads:
"Whereas, this prohibition does not apply to states, municipalities, or schools ...
... Whereas, each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion."
Essentially the legislators who proposed the bill are attempting to apply an age-old argument that has been unsuccessful every time it has been tried against decisions ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation, school desegregation, and Obamacare: nullification. The Supreme Court, who has ruled in favor of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution time and time again, has never accepted it. But that is not stopping some North Carolina lawmakers from charging in, nullification arguments blazing.
Moving on from this discredited piece of legal theory, House Bill 494 goes on to state:
"SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
SECTION 2. 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."
While the bill does not go as far as to outright state that North Carolina has a state religion, it gives every municipality in the state the power to establish an official religion. This is not the church and state divide growing smaller. This is basically declaring a free-for-all when it comes to matter of church and state, placing no restrictions whatsoever on laws concerning religion, again in violation of the Establishment Clause.
North Carolina has had a rash of extremely conservative bills introduced since the state legislatures turned Republican in 2010. There have been bills to greatly restrict abortion rights, requiring people applying for social assistance to submit to criminal background checks, and eliminating early voting on Sunday because according to House Majority Leader Edgar Sterns, "some things you just shouldn’t do on Sundays." One wonders what piece of legislation is coming next from the Tar Heel state.