House Bill 494: N.C. GOP Ditches Constitution, Plans to Implement Official State Religion

Republican North Carolina lawmakers have proposed a bill that would allow the state to establish an official religion, directly defying both the First Amendment and the Constitution. According to the bill, the federal courts do not have the power to decide what is constitutional and consequently, the state is exempt from the federal court rulings that prohibit North Carolina and its schools from favoring and establishing a religion.  

House Bill 494 was introduced by two Republicans from Rowan County, Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford, and is sponsored by seven other Republicans in a state where the GOP controls both chambers of the legislature.

The legislation itself grew out of a dispute between the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and the American Civil Liberties Union, when the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the board for allegedly opening around 97% of its meetings since 2007 with Christian prayers. According to the ACLU, one of those prayers stated that "there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ."

Forsyth Country Board of Commissioners saw a similar lawsuit in 2011, when it was decided that while prayer at government meetings was not banned outright, prayer favoring one religion over another is unconstitutional and should not take place in a public fora.

House Bill 494, which is apparently a response to the ACLU lawsuit, holds that the First Amendment and all federal rulings only apply to the federal government, not the state. Thus, it does not stop the state government, local government, or school districts from executing measures that violate the Constitution. The legislation also contends that the Tenth Amendment, which maintains that powers not reserved for the federal government belong to the states, also plays a role in granting the state the "power to determine constitutionality and the proper interpretation and proper application of the Constitution … Each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion."

However, the ACLU North Carolina chapter argues that the sponsors of the bill are fundamentally misunderstanding constitutional law and the principle of the separation of powers that America was founded on.

The ACLU also holds that incorporating prayer specific to only one religion at a government meeting alienates all other citizens who deserve to be treated equally by their government.

"In order to make local government more welcoming to citizens of all beliefs, officials must end this unconstitutional practice at once," said Chris Brook, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director.

Although the North Carolina lawmakers seem to believe that there is gray area in the First Amendment, both the Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause prove otherwise. The implied separation of church and state in both clauses prohibits Congress from adopting a national religion, and on a broader scale prohibits any government of the United States from favoring one religion over another. Despite their claims of state sovereignty, if the North Carolina legislature goes through with this, it will be a clearly unconstitutional move.