North Carolina and its counties and towns have the right to establish an official religion, notwithstanding federal court rulings to the contrary, a pair of Rowan County legislators assert in a resolution filed this week in the N.C. House that is drawing national attention.
Called the " Defense of Religion Act," the measure comes as Rowan's county commissioners gear up to fight a lawsuit that seeks to end their habit of opening meetings with specifically Christian prayers.
News outlets from NBC News to the Huffington Post have weighed in with stories calling it borderline "neo-secessionist" and drawing thousands of comments.
The U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from creating an official religion. But the First Amendment prohibition doesn't apply to states, counties, towns or schools, the resolution states. It asks the legislature to adopt a resolution supporting their right to set up their own religious laws.
The resolution's primary sponsor, Rep. Carl Ford, a Republican from China Grove, was not immediately available for comment. Another primary sponsor, Salisbury Republican Rep. Harry Warren, deferred questions to Ford.
Liberal and civil liberties groups quickly disagreed with the resolution's premise.
"There's no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That's true whether it's North Carolina or the federal government," said Michael Keegan, president of the liberal People For the American Way foundation. "Our nation was founded on the premise that church and state both benefit from a clear 'wall of separation.' That was true when Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase, and it's true today."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping a group of Rowan County residents sue the commissioners, called the resolution misguided.
"The bill sponsors fundamentally misunderstand constitutional law and the principle of the separation of powers that dates back to the founding of this country," ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook said in a statement.
The act supports Rowan County commissioners' fight to keep their Christian prayers before meetings, which often used phrases like "in Jesus' name" and said that Jesus is the only way to salvation, according to the lawsuit filed in March.
The ACLU had asked commissioners for more than a year to end the practice of Christian prayer before meetings.
The issue has drawn support on both sides in Rowan County. A church in the area is buying space on 40 billboards throughout the county to support the commissioners, WCNC reported last week.
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