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April 17, 2013

House of Burgess — Believe; it may be law soon

North Carolina nearly establishes state religion.

— Earlier this month, a stupid and dangerous piece of legislation was introduced to and subsequently expelled from the North Carolina General Assembly. The bill was presented April 1 by primary sponsors Reps. Carl Ford, R-China Grove, and Harry Warren, R-Salisbury. If passed, the bill would have allowed lawmakers in the Tar Heel State to establish a state religion. Yes, you heard me right: a state religion. In America. I’ll leave it to you to guess which faith would have become the approved one in the event this had passed. (No hints.)

“[The Assembly] asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion,” read the bill. “[The Assembly] does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit ... an establishment of religion.”

Non-believers obviously have reason to be concerned by this move. However, even if you are a person of faith, doesn’t it cheapen it a bit if it’s mandatory? And what if you happen to believe in a different deity than the law states? Are you then a spiritual outlaw? In the Bill of Rights, the very first Amendment laid down by the Founding Fathers reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Pretty clear, right? So, as one might presume, this bill raised some serious, immediate legal issues.

“If you are of the mind that these North Carolina lawmakers have it right, allow me to introduce you to Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established the three-pronged test — called ‘The Lemon Test’ — for determining when a state has run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause: the law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose, the principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion and the statute or policy must not result in an ‘excessive entanglement’ of government with religion,” wrote Forbes’ Rick Ungar. “Clearly, there is no way that a state can create an ‘official’ religion without going very wrong when it comes to meeting The Lemon Test as established by the highest court in the land.”

Fortunately for everyone, the bill was hastily pulled from consideration by the state’s speaker of the House just days later. But the fact that was even in a position to be yanked is troubling enough. I’m writing about it now to sound the warning should this rear its head again. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time or place we hear of it. It’s also interesting to me that this bill came from a pair of Republicans. This is the same party that has, for as long I can remember, been warning about the encroachment of big government in our lives.

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government,” conservative Grover Norquist once said. “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

It seems Reps. Ford and Warren are OK with the concept of administrative overreach, as long as the government is pushing an ideology they agree with.

Saturday represented the 270th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, a figure many from all political persuasions, especially conservatives, admire. Jefferson, along with Bill of Rights author James Madison, was adamant in his opposition to the mixing of religion and government. Jefferson found this association odious to say the least. He clearly wanted to establish a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” a phrase which he cribbed from theologian and Rhode Island colony founder Roger Williams. It’s one of the base principles that differentiated the burgeoning nation from England, a country with it’s own state-sponsored church. Jefferson had many deep, complicated thoughts on religion, including this one, which is an excerpt from his work “Notes on Religion,” published in October 1776.

“Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing,” he wrote. “I may grow rich by art I am compelled to follow, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment, but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve and abhor.”

Amen.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.

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