By Austin Cook, Assistant News Editor
On April 1, North Carolina State Representatives Carl Ford (R-China Grove) and Harry Warren (R-Salisbury) submitted the "Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013" (H494) to the State House of Representatives. The bill declares, among other things, that "the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion," a notion that directly contradicts the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that no law can be passed "respecting an establishment of religion..."
The bill, designed to allow North Carolina to establish a state religion, was proposed in response to a law suit being filed against Rowan County, challenging the local government's ability to begin public meetings with Christian prayer. But instead of simply asserting the county's right to pray at the meetings, the bill goes much further, proclaiming that the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights does not apply to North Carolina's state and local governments. The legislation doesn't stop there; it also declares that North Carolina does not recognize any federal court ruling that infringes the state's right to establish a religion, essentially declaring itself exempt from federal law and judicial precedent.
Although the bill has been met with a great deal of immediate skepticism, there are currently 14 Republicans in the state House of Representatives that have signed on as co-submitters of the bill, including House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes (R-Granite Falls). The proposal has already attracted national attention, but experts doubt the bill will ever become law.
John Dinan, a professor of politics and international affairs and an expert on state politics, expressed serious skepticism regarding the bill's chance of actually passing and being upheld by the courts.
"It appears that the bill would seek to challenge longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent dating back to 1947 that the religious establishment clause of the First Amendment not only limits Congress but also applies to states and localities," Dinan said.
"[T]here is little chance that the bill will be passed by the state legislature... there are many bills in any given legislative session that have no chance of passing and are instead designed to show local constituent's that the bill's sponsors are fighting for them in some fashion," he concluded.
Though the bill doesn't specify which religion the state would adopt, presumably it would be some sort of Christian denomination, seeing as the bill emerged in response to the Rowan County law suit.
According to statistics from 2002, North Carolina's residents are overwhelmingly Christian. Southern Baptists make up about 41 percent of the state population, while Methodists make up 17.5 percent, Catholics make up about 8.5 percent and Presbyterians make up about 5.6 percent.
The state's Muslim, Moravian and Jewish population was estimated to be less than 2.5 percent, at the time.
Imam Khalid Griggs, associate Chaplain for Muslim life, expressed his disappointment upon learning about the bill.
"The proposed bill appears to be patently unconstitutional to say the least. It is unfortunate that officials elected in the 21st century are capable of subscribing to views that pre-date the U.S. constitution," Griggs said.
Student reaction to the news of HB 494 has been similar to the widespread admonition of many legal scholars.
Senior James Rex, former chairman of the College Republicans, denounced the bill as a violation of the First Amendment. "[A] bill supporting a statewide religion would conflict heavily with our founding documents and I believe does not fall within the 10th amendment regarding states' rights. I urge our legislators to seek out more, not less, freedom for individuals to practice their respective religions," Rex said. "It runs counter to the true principles of conservatism."
Freshman Addison McLamb, another Republican, also voiced his opposition to the bill, calling it an "unprecedented breach of basic freedom."
Sophomore Colby Moore, a Democrat, also condemned the proposed legislation.
"I think [the bill] is absolutely absurd. There is no benefit that could come from passing this. Tolerance is clearly not a priority in the North Carolina Legislature," Moore said.
Sophomore Kate Coble believes the bill has little chance of becoming law. "The separation of church and state is too valued among Americans. I don't believe state legislation is strong enough to overcome the Supreme Court on this issue," Coble said.
Despite the ensuing controversy, the bill has gone through its first reading in the State House and is set to be debated by the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations in the coming weeks.
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