A bill filed by Republican lawmakers would allow the state to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the US Bill of Rights, and seeks to nullify any federal ruling against Christian prayer by public bodies in North Carolina.
The bill grew out of a federal lawsuit filed last month by the ACLU against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. In the lawsuit, the ACLU says the board has opened 97% of its meetings since 2007 with explicitly Christian prayers.
Overtly Christian prayers at government meetings are not rare in North Carolina. Since the Republican takeover in 2011, the state Senate chaplain has offered a explicitly Christian invocation virtually every day of session, despite the fact that some senators are not Christian.
In a 2011 ruling on a similar lawsuit against the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals did not ban prayer at government meetings outright, but said prayers favoring one religion over another are unconstitutional.
"To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord. ...where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance."
House Bill 494,filed by Republican Rowan County Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford, would refuse to acknowledge the force of any judicial ruling on prayer in North Carolina, or indeed on any Constitutional topic:
"Whereas, the Constitution of the United States does not grant the federal government and does not grant the federal courts the power to determine what is or is not constitutional; therefore, by virtue of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the power to determine constitutionality and the proper interpretation and proper application of the Constitution is reserved to the states and to the people; and
"Whereas, each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion;"
The Tenth Amendment argument, also known as "nullification," has been tried unsuccessfully by states for more than a century to defy everything from the Emancipation Proclamation of the Civil War to President Obama's health care reforms to gun control.
The bill goes on to say:
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.
Eleven House Republicans have signed on to sponsor the resolution, including Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, and Budget Chair Justin Burr, R-Stanly.