In recent days my Facebook feed has been littered with links to stories about a bill in the North Carolina Legislature that would allow the state to establish its own religion. Here was another example, my outraged friends said, of Bible Belt cluelessness. Where did these yahoos get the idea that, as the proposed resolution put it, that “the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion”?
Staunch separationists can relax. The Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013 isn’t going to be put to a vote, according to the speaker of the state House. But before the story recedes from public view, it’s worth noting that, while the sponsors of the law were out of line, their position was not the legal equivalent of creationism or climate-change denial.
The resolution was a response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU seeking to end the practice of beginning sessions of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners with a prayer – virtually always a Christian prayer. It’s not clear that the ACLU would have prevailed. A federal appeals court in San Francisco recently ruled that the city of Lancaster didn’t violate the 1st Amendment by commencing its proceedings with a Christian prayer – so long as the city didn’t “proselytize, advance or disparage one religion or affiliate government with a particular faith."