Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Religion resolution scrutinized
BY ANDREW DUNN, The Charlotte Observer
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Two Rowan County lawmakers drew nationwide attention Wednesday for pushing a resolution that says North Carolina and its counties and towns have the right to establish an official religion.
Republican state Reps. Carl Ford and Harry Warren filed the measure this week as Rowan commissioners gear up to fight a lawsuit that seeks to end their habit of opening meetings with specifically Christian prayers.
But the resolution delved deeper.
It acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from creating an official religion.
But the First Amendment prohibition, the resolution argues, doesn't apply to states, counties or towns -- despite federal court rulings to the contrary. It asks the Legislature to adopt a resolution supporting their right to set up their own religious laws.
But even the evangelist Rev. Franklin Graham and other religious leaders disagreed, saying that it wouldn't be a good idea to establish a state religion. Graham, however, supported the right of governments to have prayer before meetings.
Media from NBC News to the Huffington Post have weighed in with stories calling the resolution borderline "neo-secessionist" and drawing thousands of comments.
Religious scholars and the Christian community in North Carolina said Wednesday that they believe the law is fairly clear on the issue -- and that it would be harmful for any faith if it was made an official religion.
Ford, the resolution's primary sponsor, declined comment when approached by a Charlotte Observer reporter Wednesday. He told the Salisbury Post earlier in the day that he didn't expect the resolution to get so much attention.
"We're not starting a church. We're not starting a religion. We're supporting the county commissioners in their freedom of speech," Ford told the Post.
Warren deferred questions to Ford. He later issued a statement saying the resolution was solely to support the Rowan commissioners.
"The resolution is not an effort to establish a state religion and should not be interpreted as such," he stated.
Resolutions like the Defense of Religion Act generally have no lasting effect beyond the legislative sessions, do not require the governor's signature and are commonly used to create study commissions or honor groups such as veterans. If passed, it would not become a law.
Still, the legislators' efforts drew quick criticism from liberal and civil liberties groups.
"There's no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That's true whether it's North Carolina or the federal government," said Michael Keegan, president of the liberal People For the American Way foundation. "Our nation was founded on the premise that church and state both benefit from a clear 'wall of separation.'"
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping a group of Rowan County residents sue the commissioners, called the resolution misguided.