In response to an ACLU lawsuit against a North Carolina county maintaining that the prayers said at the opening of county commissioners’ meetings violate the Constitution’s establishment clause, state legislators have introduced a bill claiming the federal government has no authority over the subject. Its two substantive provisions:
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.
The difference between the commissioners’ prayers and the ones delivered at the beginning of sessions of Congress is the presence of sectarian identifiers like Jesus and the virgin birth. The lawsuit claims that since November 2007, 139 out of 143 meetings have included these insufficiently nondenominational prayers, though it only actually lists thirteen. Since there’s some grey area that might be cause for suspicion, here’s one of the early and more obvious examples listed, from December 2007:
Father, we thank you for your grace and your glory. We ask you to be with us this evening as we conduct the business of Rowan County. We’d also like to ask you to have your will as it relates to all the burdens and problems the citizens of Rowan County have today. As we get ready to celebrate the Christmas season, we’d like to thank you for the Virgin Birth, we’d like to thank you for the Cross at Calvary, and we’d like to thank you for the resurrection. Because we do believe that there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ. I ask all these things in the name of Jesus. Amen
At least one of them appears to have gone beyond routine statements of Christian belief. The Christian Science Monitor reports that one prayer went, “I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord, and that they will put you first.” That seems less appropriate than most of the others.
The suit also contends the practice violates the religious liberty and equal protection provisions in Article I of North Carolina’s constitution, though that’s a bit harder to see.
For their part, most of the commissioners are not backing down, despite the ACLU’s request for a temporary injunction that would end the practice. Charlotte’s CBS affiliate reported one would stop. As another told the Salisbury Post, “I’m not surprised. When they first informed our attorney in February of last year our practice was illegal, we just continued the practice.” They appear to have the support of their community:
“All citizens of Rowan County deserve to be treated equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU in North Carolina. He said the prayers have “created an environment where citizens of different beliefs are made to feel alienated.” The ACLU sent a letter to Rowan County commissioners in February 2012, asking the board to stop the prayers. At the time, the ACLU said it had received five complaints from residents.
An overflow crowd attended the next commissioners’ meeting, on March 5, 2012, with most of the public supporting county commissioners. A number of residents spoke at the meeting, saying the prayers were a constitutional right. Sides, the county commissioner, reportedly said he would be willing to go to jail in defense of opening the meeting with prayers. “I will continue to pray in JESUS name … I volunteer to be the first to go to jail for this cause …” Sides wrote in an email, according to the ACLU’s suit.
The “vast majority spoke in favor of the sectarian prayers” after the ACLU filed its lawsuit, reported WBTV.
A statement from the ACLU makes the state legislature’s reasons for stepping in pretty clear–precedent is clearly against the commissioners:
A 2011 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in another ACLU case, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, made clear that, if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, more than 20 local governments throughout North Carolina changed their opening invocations in order to comply with the law.
In a development that will surprise no one, the usual invocations racism and neo-secessionism that accompany nearly any assertion of state sovereignty are being trotted out in response to the statehouse bill. The Huffington Post tacks on an alarmist link-baiting headline. It’s worth pointing out that denying federal authority to foreclose the establishment of a state religion is not the same as wanting to establish one—though for secularists who see those Rowan County prayers as discriminatory, that’s a distinction without a difference.