North Carolina Aims to Preserve Government Prayer–by Taking Steps Toward a State Religion
Update (April 8): North Carolina lawmakers apparently aren't the only ones who would support establishing an official state religion. According to a new poll, more than one-third of Americans would support "establishing Christianity as the official state religion in [their] state."
Forbes also reports that nearly half of those polled "would also favor a constitutional amendment that would make Christianity the official religion of the United States."
Update (April 5): The North Carolina House of Representatives will not vote on a bill that would allow the state to disregard the federal Establishment Clause, according to local news source WRAL.com.
A local reporter for News 14 Carolina broke the news on Twitter yesterday afternoon:
House leadership says H494 (religion resolution) is "officially dead". #ncga #ncpol– Loretta Boniti (@BonitiNews14) April 4, 2013
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) may have thought it had the upper hand when it filed suit against a North Carolina county for opening its board meetings with explicitly Christian prayers. After all, the federal Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits the government from interfering with citizens' religious exercise.
But a new bill introduced in the North Carolina state legislature would protect the county's right to prayer in an unconventional way: by nullifying any federal regulations or court rulings regarding religion.
Eleven House lawmakers already have signed on to the bill, which "would [allow North Carolina to] refuse to acknowledge the force of any judicial ruling on prayer in North Carolina–or indeed on any Constitutional topic," according to WRAL, a local news source.
The bill asserts that each state has the right to determine how to apply the Constitution and "does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion."
The state-level attempt to preserve public prayer is unique, but not necessarily unprecedented–and courts are split on the legality of similar attempts. Last week, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a city's prayer policy, just one day after a district court ruled that a county board in Virginia cannot open its meetings with Christian prayers.
In addition, a 9th Circuit Court ruling in late March mentioned the North Carolina case, commenting that a prayer policy is not unconstitutional so long as "legislative prayer—whether sectarian or not—does not proselytize, advance, or disparage one religion or affiliate government with a particular faith."
But Catawba College politics professor Michael Bitzer told the Salisbury Post that the bill is based on the "discredited legal theory" that individual states are more powerful than the federal government.
"It calls into question any historical understanding of the past 200-plus years of legal precedents for both understanding the role of religion in the public sphere and the role of states to the federal government," Bitzer said.
Editor's note: This post has been updated.