Eight North Carolina legislators and the House Majority leader have put forward a bill that would make all of this possible. The bill, House Joint Resolution 494, also known as the “Rowan County Defense of Religion Act,” declares that states are free to make laws they choose regarding religion. The U.S. Constitution’s church-state separation provisions, they claim, apply only to the federal government.
The bill was introduced on April 1 – but apparently was not an April Fool’s joke. Asserting that “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 bill posits that “each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
There is no point in debating the merits of the ludicrous “legal” theory on which this bill is based. There also isn’t much point worrying about whether it will become law any time soon. The legislature is probably not stupid enough to pass it, and the courts would shoot it down anyway. In fact, the bill was referred to the Committee for Rules, Calendar and Operations, where loony bills are typically sent to die.
However, HJR 494 tells us a lot about the people behind the exercise. These people, as it happens, represent a powerful faction within the Republican party of North Carolina – which, as it happens, controls the state government. And here is what should really worry you: the people behind this bill have introduced it because they believe – rightly -- that such posturing will in fact increase their power and popularity among their base.
HJR 494 is interesting because it gives us an insight into what such politicians and their supporters are thinking. The religious right wing in America frequently tells us that all they are seeking is the freedom to practice their religion. When school boards are asked to refrain from opening meetings with Christian prayers, or when holiday season signs read “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” members of the religious right complain that media and government elites are making them feel bad about their religion. They claim they are being persecuted, and that all they want is to be left alone and granted their constitutional “rights.”
The legal advocacy groups leading the charge, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Liberty Counsel, assert that they are simply “defending religious liberty.” Many of the “fair and balanced” commentators play along with this line. “I think it is wrong for the government to impose its values on religion,” Newt Gingrich recently said on CNN. “That is the whole point of the First Amendment.”
What the North Carolina fiasco shows us, however, is that such claims about “religious freedom” are just posturing. Forget the constitutional niceties. What this faction is telling you is that if you are not a Christian, or if you are not their kind of Christian, you are a second-class citizen. Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians --- watch out.
We have long heard representatives of the Christian Right tell us that America is a Christian nation. Yes, Christianity, in its many diverse and contradictory forms, is an important part of our history. But now, we know that when such government officials say we live in a “Christian nation,” they are not talking about history. They are talking about the future. And the future they are working toward is theocracy.
There is another myth that this little exercise in legislative futility helps to explode, and that is the idea that the people behind such initiatives, and those who support it, are the “real Americans.” The politicians floating these kinds of ostentatiously pious initiatives assert they represent the will of the heartland – the people responsible for making America great.
But what their bill actually says, quite explicitly, is that they believe the United States Constitution doesn’t apply as soon as you enter North Carolina. They believe states are sovereign entities, and that attempts by the federal judiciary and Congress to impose laws on them with respect to religion are a breach of that sovereignty. Their point is the same one that the South Carolinians made before the Civil War with respect to secession.
These days, we are hearing a lot about the so-called rebranding of the Republican Party, how its leaders are hoping to soften divisive and bigoted speech and broaden its base. There is no evidence of that here. In fact, the plan to turn North Carolina into a sovereign Christian nation-state is as radical as anything that any major party has produced in the U.S. over the past 150 years. Anyone who thinks of its sponsors as “conservative” needs a dictionary.