Carl Ford and Harry Warren, the Rowan County Representatives who filed the bill, say that they have no intention of setting up a state church. They want to support Rowan County Commissioners in a legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union about the regular use of specifically Christian prayers to open their meetings. While the motivation behind the bill may be to allow such prayers the actual language of the legislation goes much further. The measure states that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion" and that North Carolina does not recognize federal court rulings that regulate or prohibit the state or any political entities within the state from "making laws respecting an establishment of religion."
So these two State Representatives and the eleven others who have signed on as sponsors may only wish to support Christian prayers at County Commissioner meetings, but the language of the bill clearly expresses support for a state establishment of religion.
However, the language of the legislation would have to go that far in order to accomplish the aim regarding Christian prayers at government meetings. The framers of the Bill of Rights clearly understood the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to express strict separation of church and state.
One year after Congress approved the Bill of Rights, in the discussion concerning the census bill, James Madison explained why he did not include on the census a question concerning the occupations of citizens. He was concerned about listing religious professionals. Madison did not think it proper to list members of the clergy because “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel." No member of Congress disagreed with Madison's reasoning.
So the actual framers of the Bill of Rights believed its language to prevent the government from asking citizens what they do for a living because the question would have to be posed to ministers which was not allowed because the government was not to touch religion "in any manner whatever." This is obviously an expression of strict separation between church and state, and this is the interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by the the body that adopted it.
However, the sponsors of NC House Bill 494 say that the First Amendment does not apply to states. The problem with this thinking is that a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s interprets a portion of the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that the First Amendment is enforceable against state governments. But the NC bill in question says that it does not recognize such court rulings. The problem with this thinking is that anyone with two grains of sense knows the the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law in this nation.
But what about the root cause of this lousy bill: prayer at County Commissioner meetings. Whatever you may think about that issue the solution proposed by the Rowan County Reps is way over the top. Yet, is public prayer at government meetings really a wise move?
Are Muslims allowed to lead prayers in Allah's name at County Commissioner meetings in Rowan County or any other county? Are members of any other religious faith other than Christians allowed to lead such prayers? What about those of no faith at all, how are they to participate in these prayers? I don't know the answers to these questions--I'm just asking.
The response of those who would support only Christian prayers in government meetings might be that the overwhelming majority of the citizens in their area claim to be Christians so it is appropriate that only Christian prayers be offered. The problem with this reasoning is that religious liberty is a fundamental right for all and if that right does not extend to everyone then everyone is not free. The driving force, really, behind the religion clauses of the First Amendment was oppression of religious minorities in this land.
Baptists in particular were severely persecuted as a religious minority in Virginia from about 1760 to 1780. In practicing their faith they were beaten, jailed, and fined by other Christians when church and state were united there. In response Baptists and others said that church and state should be separate in order that the government would not infringe on the rights of conscience of anyone, including those belonging to religious groups that were not in the majority and those claiming no religious faith at all.
Many would say that religious freedom is best preserved by keeping government out of religion entirely, including public prayer at government meetings. But Christians who want for this to remain a truly free country and who desire prayer in government meetings must make the practice free and fair for all faith groups and for those of no faith, including those in the minority. And I'm wondering how that can be accomplished in a manner that guards the fundamental right of religious liberty for all.