State Religion

April 29, 2013

Earlier this month, two state legislators in North Carolina made national headlines when they filed a bill to declare that the First Amendment protections of the U.S. Constitution do not apply at the state level. In particular, they wanted to make it possible for North Carolina to establish a state religion. The bill would have declared the U.S. Constitution's prohibitions on establishing a state religion did not apply to North Carolina and that the Tar Heel State would not recognize any federal court ruling saying otherwise (since the courts have been clear that the First Amendment's provisions do bind the state legislatures). The latter part is particularly laughable as the state legislators thought they could trump the U.S. Supreme Court. Many advocates of religious liberty quickly - and rightly - criticized the bill as illegal and harmful to both church and state. For instance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty declared:
The Baptist Joint Committee works daily to protect religious liberty for ALL. While some issues are difficult, the question of whether the U.S. Constitution's religion protections apply to the states is not one of them. Most Americans appreciate religious freedom and are thankful for our constitutional tradition that protects both the free exercise of religion and guards against its establishment. While legislative prayer (using a government forum to exercise religion) is controversial, government declaring an official state religion is off the charts.
Many other faith leaders spoke out against the proposed bill to explain that separation of church and state is actually good for religion. For instance, Tom Currie, dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary's campus in Charlotte, North Carolina, argued:
I think the establishment of a religion is deadly. Not just deadly for people who are not of that religion, but it's deadly to the religion itself. ... Faith is only really vital and relevant when it is able to stand on its own. It becomes small and trivial when it becomes an arm of the government.
And Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest School of Divinity, put it more succinctly:
It will kill faith.
Fortunately, the North Carolina Speaker of the House killed the bill by refusing to even give it a vote. Although this legislation is dead, the incident shows just how much education is needed today on the issue of religious liberty. As Leonard said:
It's amazing that in the 21st century that we would have people wanting to create religious establishments.
Early U.S. religious leaders like Roger Williams and John Leland and early U.S. political leaders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson won the religious liberty debate (the photo is one I took of a statue of Jefferson in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol). Hopefully we will not turn our backs on such wisdom.

0 comments