Ford talks resolution, controversy over Rowan County Defense of Religion Act
RALEIGH — N.C. Rep. Carl Ford, R-China Grove, said he didn’t expect to be in the national spotlight when he woke up Wednesday morning.
A resolution he filed Monday, penned as the Rowan County Defense of Religion Act, was intended to support the Rowan County commissioners’ right to pray, he said.
Instead it drew national attention as critics accused Ford and co-sponsor N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Salisbury, of trying to establish a state religion.
“We’re not starting a church. We’re not starting a religion. We’re supporting the county commissioners in their freedom of speech,” Ford said Wednesday.
Rowan County commissioners have vowed to fight an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed on behalf of three Rowan residents last month alleging civil rights’ violations. Citing a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the ACLU said sectarian prayer at a local government meeting is unconstitutional.
Ford, a former Rowan commissioner and owner of a Christian radio station, disagrees.
“One man called me and said, ‘This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,’” Ford said of the resolution. “I said, ‘Is it as crazy as the lawsuit?’ ”
Wording in the resolution — which isn’t a bill, Ford pointed out several times — appears to also open the door for prayer in schools.
The sought proclamation states: “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.”
Ford said he did think about schoolhouse prayer when he introduced the resolution, but he maintained his intent was to support commissioners in their fight.
“It’s the right of the commissioners to pray if they want to and to pray how they want to,” he said.
Catawba College politics Professor Michael Bitzer said Tuesday the legislation was similar to states’ challenges against the federal government following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., decision in 1954 that required nationwide public school integration.
But Ford balked at the notion Wednesday.
“That’s so wrong. That’s not the intent. The intent was to show support for the county commissioners,” he said. “Could we have done it a different way then? Sure.”
Ford said he decided on the resolution because other towns, like Kings Mountain, have made similar resolutions before.
He said he didn’t expect the proclamation to go viral.
“Honestly I expected a whole lot of nothing, as far as reaction,” he said. “I really did. Maybe, maybe I’m ignorant, maybe I’m naive, but I didn’t” expect it.
National news outlets like the Huffington Post and Forbes.com pushed the story to a different level Wednesday.
The Huffington Post headlined the story with “GOP Lawmakers Propose Official State Religion.”
But Warren said Tuesday night he didn’t intend to make that declaration by supporting what he saw as the “literal interpretation” of the First Amendment.
“This is, on my part, more of a demonstration of support more than an effort to have the courts revisit everything,” Warren said.
He also said he did not anticipate the bill going far.
“I didn’t expect it to go anywhere,” he said, noting that the bill was read into the floor Tuesday morning and referred to the committee for Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House. “Quite often bills go there and never come out.”
Ford said the attention has had one intended result.
“It has gotten people to get out their Constitution and read it,” he said.
As the story has gained national attention, Cornerstone Church Pastor Bill Godair had a billboard put up along U.S. 29, near his church on Webb Road.
“Keep praying commissioners in Jesus name, amen,” the sign reads.
Last week, Commission Chairman Jim Sides said he was “grateful” to Godair for the gesture.
“He told me that he planned to do that,” Sides said. “I told him I really appreciated that somebody was standing with us. I don’t have any problem with that.”
At a commissioners meeting on March 18, Godair held an artificial check emblazoned with $10,000 as he pledged his support for sectarian prayer.
Sides said he wasn’t sure if the billboards would be paid in addition to the pledged amount. Neither Godair nor Sides could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.