RALEIGH — Local lawmakers are asking the N.C. General Assembly to proclaim the Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013, a resolution that would back county commissioners’ use of sectarian prayer in official meetings.
But the intent of the resolution and the possible ramifications thereof have led to heated remarks on both sides as lawmakers and legal experts grapple with First Amendment interpretations.
N.C. Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford, both Republicans from Rowan, filed the joint resolution Monday.
Commissioners have vowed to keep praying after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against county leaders on behalf of three Rowan residents last month.
The proposed resolution says citizens should not lose First Amendment protection “by virtue of their appointment, election, contract, employment, or otherwise engagement.”
Warren said the proclamation focused on a “literal interpretation” of the First Amendment and was meant to show support for commissioners, not to assert a need for local sovereignty.
“This is, on my part, more of a demonstration of support more than an effort to have the courts revisit everything,” Warren said.
The second-term representative said the separation of church and state “has been liberally defined and interpreted” and the resolution intended to support a more conservative understanding.
But Warren admitted he didn’t expect the bill to go far.
“I didn’t expect it to go anywhere,” he said, noting that the bill was read into the floor Tuesday morning and referred to the committee for Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House. “Quite often bills go there and never come out.”
Neither Ford nor Commission Chairman Jim Sides could be reached.
Along with the two Rowan County lawmakers, several other Republican representatives co-sponsored the bill.
N.C. Reps. Bert Jones of Reidsville, Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson, Allen McNeil of Asheboro, Larry Pittman of Concord, Michele Presnell of Burnsville, Edgar Starnes of Hickory and Chris Whitemire of Roseman also penned their endorsement.
The resolution further states: “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.”
Catawba College politics Professor Michael Bitzer likened the resolution’s ideology to that of many Southern states following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., decision in 1954 that required nationwide public school integration.
“They basically want to ensure that a long line of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have no validity either here in Rowan County or here in the entire state,” Bitzer said. “They’re basing it on — to put it mildly — discredited legal theory that the states can deny the power of the federal government within their jurisdiction. We saw this in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. The belief is that the states hold more power than the federal government. If the federal government does something, the states can simply ignore it.”
But the resolution doesn’t stop with Rowan County commissioners.
The legislation also references a freedom for those in public schools — which could open the door for schoolhouse prayer, Bitzer said.
“They’re ramping up,” he said of Warren and Ford. “They’re throwing the gauntlet down. How much this is going to be binding — it’s a joint resolution — but they’re basically making it known where they’re drawing the line. This will play well within the base, but 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.”
The ACLU filed suit on behalf of residents Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker in early March. They alleged a civil rights violation in the action.
In a statement released Tuesday, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook took aim at the resolution.
“The bill sponsors fundamentally misunderstand constitutional law and the principles of the separation of powers that date back to the founding of this country,” Brook wrote.
Gary Freeze, a history and politics professor at Catawba College, said the legislation also goes against a longstanding North Carolina tradition of religious establishment.
“I can tell you with 100 percent confidence there is no tradition of wanting an established religion in this state’s heritage,” Freeze said.
He also described the bill as “the verge of being neo-secessionist.”
“It’s almost anti-nationalist. It has elements of not being American,” Freeze said. “I think it goes far beyond religion and frankly doesn’t have a lot to do with North Carolina or tradition.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.