Rules chairman: Defense of Religion Act won’t be considered in current form

  • Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2013 1:13 a.m.

RALEIGH — The Defense of Religion Act resolution filed by two Rowan County representatives will likely go through some changes — if it goes anywhere — in the N.C. General Assembly.

The House Rules chairman said Wednesday that the bill won’t be considered in its current form. Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said he didn’t believe it was the intent of the bill’s sponsors to let the state create or sanction a religion, as some have interpreted.

Rather, he said, Reps. Carl Ford and Harry Warren wanted to express opposition to a lawsuit they perceived to infringe on religious freedom.

As currently worded, the resolution asserts the state can make its own laws regarding the establishment of religion and that the federal government and courts have no authority to decide what is constitutional.

It declares “each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

The resolution is titled “A Joint Resolution to Proclaim the Rowan County, North Carolina Defense of Religion Act of 2013.” It goes beyond religion to claim federal court rulings on any constitutional issue have no authority in the states.

“ ... the power to determine constitutionality and the proper interpretation and proper application of the Constitution is reserved to the states and to the people,” the resolution states, invoking the Tenth Amendment.

The resolution is nothing more than political grandstanding, said Marci Hamilton, church-state expert at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. “Were they to pass this bill, it would be unconstitutional and nothing but the subject of litigation,” she said. “It would take the federal courts about five minutes to hold that it’s unconstitutional.”

She said it concerned her because elected officials must pledge to uphold the federal and state constitutions. “It does show me that the elected officials are willing to pander to what they perceive as their voters, regardless of what the Constitution requires,” she said.

Eleven other legislators signed the resolution, in addition to Ford and Warren. Legislators introduce scores of resolutions every year, honoring constituents or declaring their stances on issues, but they carry little legal weight. But Hamilton said a resolution could still be unconstitutional if it was considered a government endorsement of a particular religion. The resolution does not specify any religion.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina sued the board of commissioners in Rowan County. The federal lawsuit accuses the board of violating the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion by routinely praying to Jesus Christ to start its meetings.

Chris Brook, legal director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the lawmakers don’t understand constitutional law and principles of separation of powers.

“These are principles that have served our nation well for hundreds of years,” he said. “And it is unfortunate that these elected officials would seek to throw these hallowed principles overboard.”

Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the resolution likely would have only symbolic meaning.

“Resolutions usually mean nothing more than a belief, and these lawmakers are entitled to have that belief,” he said.

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