Introduction: Deju Vu Anyone?
Does this sound familiar?
“We, the people of the State of North Carolina in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by the State of North Carolina in the convention of 1789, whereby the Constitution of the United States was ratified and adopted, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly ratifying and adopting amendments to the said Constitution, are hereby repealed, rescinded, and abrogated.
We do further declare and ordain, That the union now subsisting between the State of North Carolina and the other States, under the title of the United States of America, is hereby dissolved, and that the State of North Carolina is in full possession and exercise of all those rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.”
If you concluded this must have been the “Ordinance of Secession” that declared North Carolina part of the Confederacy “done in convention at the city of Raleigh... on the 20th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1861 in the eighty-fifth year of the independence of said State,” congratulations Mr. or Ms. history buff.
What would you think if the people of the State of North Carolina, in convention assembled in 2013, were to declare and ordain once again that the U.S. Constitution is “hereby repealed, rescinded, and abrogated?”
North Carolina Legislators Want Their State for Christians
Believe it or not, two legislators in that State have introduced an Ordinance supported by about a dozen co-sponsors to do just that, at least with respect to those parts of the U.S. Constitution to which they don’t particularly cotton. Here’s the preamble to the Bill declaring North Carolina a Christian State:
“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. 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."
Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), commented about this on the AU website:
“I know it’s hard to believe but North Carolina legislators have actually introduced a resolution asserting that states are free to make any laws they choose regarding religion. The U.S. Constitution’s church-state separation provisions, they say, apply only to the federal government ... House Joint Resolution 494 it is a stark reminder of the urgent church-state problems we face in the state legislatures and other halls of government ... Some lawmakers and elected officials think the U.S. Constitution just doesn’t apply to them. In 24 states, Religious Right zealots, Tea Party troops and other right-leaning politicians control both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s office. It’s a perilous situation!
Commentaries by Separation Champions
Dan Barker and Laurie Annie Gaylor, Co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, were less diplomatic:
“These fools for god fail to understand that, if their bill were enacted, it will also prohibit North Carolina citizens from exercising other First Amendment rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble and to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Most notably, these legislators are saying there is also no ‘freedom of religion’ for state citizens, a cornerstone of the First Amendment. Of course, this absurd bill is patently unconstitutional, violates the separation of powers, the supremacy clause, as well as the 14th and First Amendment. This bill is going nowhere. Legislators of ill will who insult intelligence and the Constitution should be going no where near the North Carolina Statehouse.”
Who are the idiots who offered this odious offal? How could such people get elected to the North Carolina State Legislature? What does this suggest about North Carolina or, worse, America?
The names of the Republican Representatives who sponsored this Bill, both of whom are from rural Rowan County, are Harry Warren and Carl Ford. Under the 14th amendment adopted in 1868, state citizens have the same protections under the federal Bill of Rights as federal citizens: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As has been pointed out by several observers, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”) also means “State legislators shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” extends to state as well as federal citizens.
Where’s the Beef and What’s the Solution for North Carolina, Short of Secession?
The rural Christian Carolina legislators will soon realize that their State Legislature cannot just declare itself unwilling to abide by any federal judicial ruling over a constitutional topic that it does not like. This includes topics that recently have vexed aggressive Christians who want their faith expressed in the public square in varied way, including government prayer. Their rancor over the First Amendment stems from conflicts over government prayer. They currently invoke Jesus-centered prayers in the statehouse and in county governments across the state, a practice the ACLU and other groups such as FFRF are challenging in the courts.
So, even though I’m not in favor of such a thing, how could these legislators act so as to give observers the impression that North Carolina is a Christian state, even though it is not and cannot be such under our current Constitution.
There are two ways.
The first is to do nothing. It is a largely Christian state, de facto if not expressly by law. The population is overwhelming Christian. No need to declare such a thing. It seems such already but fortunately, this status has no legal standing, so non-Christians have all the rights and protections of Christians.
The second strategy is to act like Christians. This is not as simple as it seems, as there are many, often conflicting versions of what acting like Christians would entail.
To non-Christians and Christians alike, there is a lot of room for interpretation when deciding how to think and act while “professing belief in Jesus as Christ, following the life and teachings of Jesus, manifesting the qualities or the spirit of Jesus and being Christ-like in the world. Holy smokes - no wonder there are so many denominations, sects, schisms and the like just among those who embrace the Christian label.
For this strategy to work, North Carolina Christians seeking to be known informally though not in an official way as a Christian state ought to consider embracing the generalities of niceness that many not-so aggressively political Christians associate with the best of this religious label. I have in mind something like “showing a loving concern for others; being humane.” That definition is one of five characteristics offered by pastor William R. Cunningham a blog post entitled “Christian Characteristics” on July 16, 2006. (The others were all about following Jesus, as noted above and thus would not be helpful given their lack of specificity and easy interpretation.)
Most beneficial about the good pastor’s essay were a few simple common decency traits. These qualities are respected, valued and embraced by not just Christians with a loving concern for others who chose to be humane but as well by Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, Pastfarians and so on. These are identified by the reverend as qualities of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustworthiness (faithful to commitments), gentleness and self-control.
Now that’s the kind of state I find attractive. Such a reputation, however, would not come about from a resolution by a state legislature; it would be earned by evidence that such traits were characteristics of the people who live in the jurisdiction.
I recommend that after the laughter dies down and Messrs. Warren and Ford have regained their senses, efforts be made to promote a better understanding of common decencies as well as Constitutional protections for citizens of the Tar Heel state and all other Americans.
Sometimes, a foolhardy act can provide positive consequences of an unintended nature. Let’s hope this becomes such an occasion.