It turns out North Carolina won’t be establishing its own religion after all. A resolution proposed this week by GOP state lawmakers that said the state has the right to declare an official religion will never come to a vote.
The legislation, House Joint Resolution 494, filed Monday by two GOP legislators and co-signed by 12 others, says the Supreme Court cannot block a state “from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.” But on Thursday, House Speaker Thom Tillis’ said the resolution was dead, according to WRAL.
The bill was initially filed in response to a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, which, the ACLU said, opened 97 percent of its meetings in 2007 with explicitly Christian prayers. Filing the lawsuit on behalf of three residents, the ACLU wrote in a press release, “the commissioners, who deliver the prayers themselves, routinely call on Jesus Christ and refer to other sectarian beliefs during invocations.”
The legislation filed by Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford stated 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.”
Warren and Ford did not return several requests for comment, but Warren told The Salisbury Post he never really expected the bill to go too far.
“I didn’t expect it to go anywhere,” Warren told the newspaper, noting that the bill was referred to the committee for Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House. “Quite often bills go there and never come out.”
Co-signer Rep. Phil Shepard said in an interview before the bill was killed, “I don’t support anything that would maintain a state religion, but … we have the right to assemble and pray.”
“I wouldn’t want anyone to say we would be an all Catholic state, an all Episcopalian state, an all Baptist state … there may be some that feel that way but I don’t.”
The crux of the resolution lay in the 10th Amendment, which leaves to the states powers not explicitly given to the federal government in the Constitution. In recent years states have used this “nullification” argument in attempts to defy federal laws and Supreme Court rulings, most recently about gun control and the Affordable Care Act.
The bill wouldn’t have actually created a religion. But it would have made an argument that they could. And the bridge between arguing and doing is key.
University of North Carolina constitutional law professor Michael Gerhardt said “people can believe what they want to believe.”
“They are entitled to believe it, they are entitled to think it, they are entitled to say it, but they aren’t entitled to act on it,” Gerhardt said. “However they are not entitled to reject applicable Supreme Court opinion.”
“The issue they are raising is settled by constitutional law,” Gerhardt said. “They are trying to turn the clock back on the First Amendment.”
And now that won’t happen.