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House bill opens door to state religion

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Could North Carolina soon have an "official" religion? The chances are slim, but the topic is certainly up for discussion in the state General Assembly.

Two Republican lawmakers from Rowan County filed a bill in the House of Representative Monday asking the General Assembly to assert that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit states from establishing an official religion.

The chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Tim Moore, says he doesn't think the bill's sponsors intended to let the state sanction a religion.

While the bill does not specifically disclose which religion should be North Carolina's established religion, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last month to stop the Rowan County Commission from opening meetings with Christian prayers.

Entitled "Rowan County Defense of Religion Act of 2013" (House Bill 494), the bill challenges the language of the U.S. Constitution, in which the First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Its sponsors, Rep. Carl Ford (R-District 76) and Rep. Harry Warren (R-District 77), contend the prohibition "does not apply to states, municipalities or schools."

"Each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion," the bill reads.

The bill's sponsors further argue the federal government and federal courts do not have the "power to determine what is or is not constitutional." Rather, "the power to determine constitutionality and the proper interpretation and proper application of the Constitution is reserved to the states and to the people."

Warren says the bill is only intended to allow Rowan County commissioners to open their meetings with prayers.

In a statement released Tuesday, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook said the bill's sponsors "fundamentally misunderstand constitutional law and the principles of the separation of powers that date back to the founding of this country."

In a 2011 ACLU case ruling (Joyner v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith.

"Matters of faith are deeply personal. When the government appears to be taking the side of one religion over others, it gives rise to the very type of religious divisiveness and exclusion that the First Amendment seeks to avoid," said Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

H.B. 494 passed its first reading on Tuesday and was subsequently referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House.

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