The Real Problem With North Carolina’s Official Religion Proposal

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 4, 2013 — 48 Comments

A group of Republican politicians in North Carolina have decided to introduce a resolution that would declare an official religion for the state (no prizes for guessing which religion that would be).  House Joint Resolution 494 argues that the United States Constitution can’t actually stop the establishment of a sectarian official religion at the state level, and that North Carolina can ignore judicial rulings that say otherwise.

Representative Harry Warren (R) and Representative Carl Ford (R), who introduced the official religion bill.

Representative Harry Warren (R) and Representative Carl Ford (R), who introduced the official religion bill.

“Whereas, Rowan County, North Carolina, requests and encourages the North Carolina General Assembly to pass a resolution declaring that the State of North Carolina does not recognize the authority of federal judicial opinions arising from the exertion of powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution of the United States; Now, therefore, Be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring: 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.”

Before we go any further, let’s be clear that this bill has almost no chance of becoming a law, and even if it did, it would not be enforceable so long as North Carolina is a part of the United States (in fact it has already been declared dead on arrival by the House Speaker). The legal argument put forth is somewhat clever, but  has never succeeded in gaining traction. In short, this is grandstanding, a show, it’s lawmakers trolling the news media because they know doing this will garner them a lot of outrage and attention. However, the reason I’m writing this isn’t because I’m fearful and outraged over this bill’s introduction, it’s because I think stunts like this send a clear signal to religious minorities living in the state that they aren’t welcome. I think maneuvers like this create a chilling environment for those outside the Christian paradigm who want to fully participate in government.

North Carolina is a place where acceptance of religious minorities isn’t a given. For instance, there was the issue regarding the distribution of religious materials in Buncombe County schools, which involved the local Pagan community.

“We will have to police the system for years to come, calling, demanding, emailing. Every time a child whose parents practice a minority religion is othered or belittled or otherwise bullied because of that–someone will have to contact the system and demand that something be done.”

North Carolina also recently passed a state constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, despite the fact that not all religious groups in the state agree with such a prohibition. Finally, North Carolina’s legislature has been engaging in sectarian Christian opening prayers, despite the fact that their state was involved in a major legal case involving the use of said prayers.

The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari (judicial review) in the case of Forsyth County, North Carolina v. Joyner, which challenged the local government’s opening prayer policy. In this instance, Forsyth County had constructed an ”inclusive” (and thus theoretically constitutionally protected) model where all comers could have a turn, but challengers to the policy noted that the prayers were overwhelmingly Christian, and created a chilling atmosphere towards non-Christian faiths.”

The arguments in the case mentioned above were shaped by legal cases involving Pagans and public invocations. That case may have also been the inspiration for the current sectarian religious proposal.

All of this, including this most recent stunt, sends a message: non-Christians aren’t welcome. They aren’t considered full members of North Carolina society and should accept that Christianity is dominant and will remain so. That Christianity will never willingly release the reigns of cultural and political power. That’s the real problem with this proposal, and it is why we should take it seriously despite the obvious trolling nature of it. North Carolina is a religiously diverse state, one that includes Pagans, and they should feel as entitled to a place at the table as any Christian.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Byron Ballard

    Not really. This is about repaying some campaign donors. But it is a smokescreen to keep everyone looking at the shiny while the General Assembly wrests power away from the municipalities and strips the people of their common resources–water systems, airports, etc. It is calculated and effective. And I understand it is happening nationwide when people like this get into a majority position in the state legislature. I know it’s happening in Virginia. If any of your readers are aware of it in their state, I’d appreciate hearing from them.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      In Ohio the GOP government re-gerrymandered the state even worse than before and legislated away the collective bargaining rights of state employees. A referendum election reversed that. Now the GOP has restricted the number of days it takes to get signatures for a referendum.
      Meanwhile the state govt is sacrificing our drinking water by throwing the state open to hydrofracture extraction. If their public dumb-show in the legislature was supposed to be a distraction it didn’t work; “fracking” is a hot political topic.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        BTW I disagree with your “not really.” Both can be true. The Right mounted anti-gay-marriage ballot issues in 2004 to bring out conservative voters and defeat John Kerry, but that doen’t mean they don’t actually have animus against gays.

        • Byron

          My “not really” was in response to its effect on minority religions. I believe this will have not have a significant impact on our lives–which are already constantly impacted by religious intolerance on the governmental level.

        • Kenneth

          People who peddle hate they don’t even believe in to gain some advantage are even a lower form of scum than bigots. A bigot at least has the courage of their convictions and a cause.

      • Byron Ballard

        Thanks for this information. I’ll add it to the lengthening list.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I checked out that legal theory you linked and I think you’re being too kind; it’s not clever. It’s a constitutional argument that was decided the other way by the Civil War.
    Another approach they could have taken is that the First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law “regarding the establishment” of religion. This convoluted wording is because some states did have established state churches when the Constitution was written ca 1790. What the language was telling Congress was, Don’t establish a national church and don’t interfere with established state churches.
    Fast forward to the 1860s. The Civil War Amendments for the first time conferred rights of citizenship as Americans defensible against state infringement, implicitly imposing the Bill of Rights on state governments, too. (This is the part these North Carolina legislators have dropped down the memory hole.) In the ensuging 130+ years the court system has worked just what this means in specific instances. These decisions don’t look promising for the Church of North Carolina, to put it mildly.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    What this says to me is not just that non-Christians are not welcome in North Carolina, but also that North Carolina tacitly approves of their persecution.

    • http://www.facebook.com/JediCass Daniel Castaneda

      This. It disgusts me to see there are people out there who still act like this.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        There will always be people out there who act like this.

        • http://www.facebook.com/JediCass Daniel Castaneda

          And this saddens me.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Why? Conflict is natural.

          • http://www.facebook.com/JediCass Daniel Castaneda

            Yes, but it does not have to be. We are thinking beings, we can rise above our instincts. At least I like to think we can.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            But should we? Instincts are very important, and conflict can be constructive in the long term.

          • http://www.facebook.com/JediCass Daniel Castaneda

            Very true. Definitely something to think about.

  • NancyG

    and this is one MORE reason why I won’t live in North Carolina!

    • Meredith Williams

      To be fair, I’ve lived here my whole life and have never experienced any problems because of my Pagan status. There will always be asshats, but the state is quite diverse, so avoiding them is easy. Everyone I know here is pretty pissed off at the legislature for making us look like redneck morons.

      • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

        I’ll second this; I’ve lived here most of my life and, while it is sometimes difficult being a non-Christian in NC, don’t assume that the whole state is like this.

      • http://twitter.com/tynanwrites dan tynan

        yeah, what he said. don’t let a handful of bible thumping knuckledraggers turn you off the state as a whole. there are plenty of enlightened folk here.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698232678 J.M. Midnite

      So you won’t be part of the solution then… Some of us are Natives who have never taken any part in this kind of ignorance. But as long as the good people run off or refuse to deal with the instigators, such as ones who refuse to live in these states, then the problem continues.

    • PhaedraHPS

      I lived in North Carolina as an open Pagan for many years. I likes it there. Back in the mid-1990s I led open Pagan rituals in the basement of the Kernersville NC public library and got a huge turnout. The Raleigh-Durham Pagan Pride event runs for two days and is one of the largest Pride events in the country. If it wasn’t for the hot summers, I’d probably be living there now.

      As another commenter mentioned, this ridiculous proposal just shows how uneasy and worried the powers-that-be are. They know they are losing their privileged status and are panicking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Habukberht Gavin Stroud

    We have a large, thriving Heathen community here. It doesn’t matter if we are “welcome”, they can’t and won’t get rid of us. I’ve had no issue in NC being a Heathen, and i’ve been one for a decade now. This is just another instance of a hopeless bill (it’s been bumped out of the senate) that for some reason people have payed attention to. There are literally hundreds of such bills that do the same, with nary a word from the media. The only reason we talk about this one is because someone decided to make a big deal about it.

    Watching these idiots rage about it on facebook has been hliarious.

    Those of you that say you would “never live in NC”, we don’t want you here either way… so we are in agreement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.pulley Paul Pulley

    As an openly Heathen NC resident for the last 32 years I can tell you that the real reason for this grandstanding is that they feel very threatened. This is a state that has real live snake handling Christians and felt very secure a few years ago that they where %100 born again. There has been a Pagan presence in the Raleigh Durham Chapel Hill area for a long time. But in the last few years Paganism in general, but Heathenism especially, has been growing rapidly in rural areas. And they have been using the internet to form groups, and find the courage to come out of the broom/hammer closet. Suddenly some of these tiny country towns that always assumed everyone was just like them and never had the absolute authority of Christ challenged have multiple Pagan groups meeting out in the open. And they are shocked and terrified by the rapid change.

    • Zvoruna

      And it’s not just the Pagan groups that are increasing: Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other groups are also increasing as folks from other states move into the NC area.

      • Shine Moon

        I and many many of us non-Christians are local to NC and even have families that ‘go way back’. Yes, people who move here from outside the area bring in their own religion, naturally. But they don’t all equate to the same people who move in and gentrify an area (the easier for the Christians to cause more contention if they can keep up the idea that ‘new’ religions come from new people). And there have been non-Christian goings-on in these hills for a long long time.

    • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

      We Heathens tend to hang out in the tool shed, not the broom closet – though, I must admit, having a hammer closet sounds pretty awesome.

  • Stacy P

    We have to be here (in NC) cause my husband is stationed here with the military… but I can concur that non-Christian religions are not really welcome here. My husband and I are pagan, and we were going to be married here (once again thanks to the military), we had a priestess lined up and everything… then 2 weeks before our wedding day, she (our priestess) got a bad case of pneumonia and was unable to conduct the ceremony. My husband went to his Chaplin Officer (whose job is to provide religious for all service members) to ask if they would conduct our ceremony, or if they could help him find someone who would… they simply said “I could… but I won’t.”

    However, the pagan community that is here is absolutely amazing and completely supportive! So it’s not all down hill.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Hope you reported the Chaplain for discrimination.

  • Kevin Luckham

    Food for thought; The online research tool Questia.com defines Ethnic Cleansing as follows.

    “Ethnic cleansing describes the systemic attempt by one group to make a region or country ethnically homogenous, or at least free of some ethnic component, by any means possible, though not necessarily murder.”

    What if….A group of Pagans and/or non-christians in general, were to contact NATO publicly and request an international investigation of the Republican Party of America’s practices (or NC state government). Could the possibility of international charges (i.e. crimes against humanity) be an adequate deterrent for further spread of this form of intimidation?

    • Charles Cosimano

      It would be good for a laugh. No one cares what any international body would think.

    • Kenneth

      It’s a nice theory, but nobody at present has the power or will to hold our government accountable even for the actual war crimes it commits. Some UN committee might document a formal complaint in their stats however, or failing that, some NGO like Amnesty or some human rights type org.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        This.

        International bodies are meaningless when their sole use is to allow the powerful nations to control the weak.

    • Kevin Luckham

      @Charles and Kenneth. That is also what the Vatican thought, now there is a pope that cannot leave the house without going to prison.

      I do agree that it probably would not go nearly as far as that, however, I do believe that it would create enough attention and embarrassment for the Republican Party to effectively end the careers of the hate mongers in question. They would either be asked to no longer run for office by the Republican National Committee, or the politicians running against them in every election would use embarrassing references to the incident in their ad campaigns.

      • Kevin Luckham

        Would you vote for a guy known as ‘Kosovo’ Carl (Ford)? How about ‘Witch-hunter’ Warren?

        There is no weapon more effective than humiliation; its effects are permanent, it is the most feared weapon in history, and your enemies can never disarm you.

      • Charles Cosimano

        The Vatican does not have an army or a CIA. What would happen is the the national fury directed at the idiots who tried such a stunt would guarantee a Republic President and Congress and probably the untimely death of anyone damned fool enough to start such a thing.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Hate to say it, but maybe we need a martyr or few.

  • http://www.facebook.com/buzzard.roost Anne Johnson

    They call Maryland “America in Miniature,” but the same could certainly be said of North Carolina. It starts at the Atlantic and ends in the tallest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. It has big cities, high-end vacation resorts, prestigious universities, and rural farming areas. I can imagine that its state legislature must have a very interesting mix of people, the vast majority of whom would never take such a bill seriously. If I happened to be a citizen of that state, I would pay close attention to what else was on the docket when such foolishness arises, so as not to be blinded by a smokescreen.

  • BryonMorrigan

    I don’t think many people have noticed the massive legal mistake the Conservatives have made here… Check out this quote I found on CNN today:

    “Rep. Carl Ford, the resolution’s co-sponsor, told the Salisbury Post the resolution’s intent is to support county commissioners in Rowan, North Carolina, who routinely end their invocations at public meetings with “In Jesus’ name, amen.””

    Did you miss that?

    The purpose of the bill is to make it so that NC can “establish a religion”, thereby flaunting the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The impetus for creating the bill was in order to make it so that public officials could invoke Christianity at public meetings.

    THEREFORE…this Republican Christo-Fascist just ADMITTED that invocations of Christianity during public meetings is a Constitutionally-forbidden act of “establishing a religion.” They’ve been arguing all along that the Constitution did NOT forbid these acts…but now they’ve admitted that they were wrong! (And/or lying…)

    And with one fatal stroke…the Christo-Fascists just committed legal suicide…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=574896155 Ryan Smith

      Which doesn’t mean they won’t try anyway. Authoritarians only care about legality when it serves their purposes, when it doesn’t they find creative ways to make it work one way or the other.

      • BryonMorrigan

        Trust me, dude: Read some Supreme Court opinions, particularly Scalia’s dissents. The cognitive dissonance that goes on in that man’s head would be hilarious…if not for the fact that he has so much power over the laws of the USA.

        Either way, this bill, and the language used in it…can be a fairly useful tool for lawyers to fight against the Christo-Fascists.

  • Charles Cosimano

    All this just brings to mind the image of one of them thar’ legislator folk standing on the roof of the state capitol dressed in the sort of uniform cum rags that his great great great great grandpappy wore when he ran for his life from General Sherman’s troops giving out that high-pitched shriek of utter terror later to be jokingly called the “Rebel Yell,” waving the Confederate flag. And a voice comes from the drone overhead saying, “Bend over Bubba, we need a fat target.”

  • Makarios

    Fred Clark nails it, as he often does: ‘Just curious, but has anyone ever attempted to invoke this right to “nullification” for any cause that was not
    morally odious? I mean, the idea started with slave-owners. Then it was
    tried again by segregationists. Now it’s being tried by sectarian
    bigots. . . .Whenever you hear someone speak favorably of nullification, you can
    conclude that they hate the Constitution and that they hate some other
    group of people. That’s useful to know.’

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=574896155 Ryan Smith

    I really hate to say this but I expect to see more things like this as time goes on. The shooting Jason reported on earlier this week and now this are just symptoms of a greater problem. It is definitely dead-on that hard-line Christians will not surrender the power they have gained and sustained without a fight; history has shown such groups have never shied away from using extreme measures before so its no surprise, sadly, to me that they would continue to do so now.

    With religious diversity on the rise, the gay rights movement beating the Religious Right in spite of the Religious Right throwing all their weight against it, and the demographic time bomb that’s going to destroy the base for Christian fundamentalism within another generation or two expect to see groups like that to take increasingly bigger risks. Nothing breeds dangerous action like desperation and nothing is more desperate than a group that once had the power and is now facing the prospect of losing it. The fact that prominent Republicans including people like Karl Rove have recently come out saying they could see a Republican candidate in 2016 that supports gay rights; I bet you for the high-roller Fundie powerbrokers that was seen as an open challenge at the least and betrayal at the worst.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Can you really blame them? Who likes giving up power to those they are theologically opposed to?

  • Naali

    This is a problem throughout the entire Southeastern US. Someone I know works for the government, and at his workplace, government officials were ranting about the diminishing number of Christians being the reason for all of society’s ills, and they later verbally commanded everyone to bow their heads in Christian prayer before a public, government board meeting.

    When he quietly left and privately e-mailed one of them about it later, saying that it had made him uncomfortable (like me, he’s pagan), she said she didn’t see what was so offensive about it, and insinuated it was because of her southern upbringing, that it was because of how they’d been raised. Upon hearing that, I was a bit dismayed. I’m a proud Norse/Celtic Reconstructionist, and I was born and raised here in the South by a Southern family. This is not the first instance of this kind of thing I’ve seen or faced. On another occasion, I briefly visited a pagan friend at the store he worked at, and he wished me a Happy Yule. A manager from a neighboring store who overheard went on a rant and said she would have fired him for not saying “Merry Christmas,” even after he explained that we were friends and both pagan.

    That kind of thing happens all the time down here.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Tolerance been the downfall of Paganism, before. Perhaps it is time to leave it behind?

    • GearoidMacConfhiaclaigh

      I’ve kept my pagan faith quiet when I go back home to Tennessee, with how bad they’ve been about Muslims lately I doubt I’d do much better, despite being a native Tennessean.

      That kind of stuff happens everywhere, I see it too often in “liberal and democratic” Maryland as well as conservative Tennessee, but it hurts me a bit more when it happens to a place I identity with. I know I’m really not welcome, even some parts of the family would disown me if they knew (though some surprised me. One set of grandparents know and responded with “Your uncle Ricky is one of those [pagan]”, though it turns out hes a very eclectic Wiccanish type compared to my Reconstructionist tendencies)

      • Nick Ritter

        “… it hurts me a bit more when it happens to a place I identity with.”

        As a native Texan, I am all too familiar with that particular sting. My mother tells me sometimes about heathenish goings-on that my grandfather and great-grandfather used to get into in the woods behind the family farm, but I think mostly she tells me those things to make me feel a bit less isolated from my family.