North Carolina Republicans Want to Create a Christian Establishment

The framers of the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 made it abundantly clear as to what kind of people they wanted to serve in their new state government.  Article 32 states:

That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of either the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office, or place of trust or profit, in the civil department, within this State.

North Carolina did not have an official state church (Article 34), but they certainly had a very specific religious test oath for state officeholders. The NC Constitution defended religious freedom for all its inhabitants (also Article 34), but only Protestants were allowed to hold office. 

Nine current North Carolina GOP state legislators would like to return to the “golden age” of 1776. They recently passed a bill that would allow them to create a Christian religious establishment in the Tarheel State.  Here is the bill that they proposed::

SECTION 1. The North Carolina General 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.

SECTION 2. 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.

On one level, this bill does not call for the same religious test oaths required by the 1776 Constitution.  On another level, it goes beyond the 1776 Constitution by calling for a religious establishment.

But I wonder what such an establishment of religion might look like?  Do these legislators want the state to collect tax money to support Christian ministers and organizations at the expense of non-Christian ministers and non-Christian religious organizations? If this bill were to pass, would the leaders of the new established church try to re-install test oaths?  Would schoolchildren who are not Christians be forced to sit through Bible reading and prayer in public schools?

The sponsors of the bill are aware of the fact that they can’t establish a state religion in North Carolina without violating the United States Constitution.  (The passing of the 14th Amendment in 1868, and its 20th century application to religion in the states, makes a Christian establishment, or any other establishment of religion, unconstitutional).  So rather than try to reinterpret the Constitution to allow such an establishment (a tactic used by many “Christian nation” advocates), these legislators have decided to ignore the Constitution altogether.  Sounds to me like a modern-day form of nullification.

For those of you who know your American history, this all sounds very familiar. But before we start worrying about another nullification crisis, the bill needs to pass the North Carolina legislature.  And that is highly unlikely. (Thanks to my former student Jeff Erbig for calling this article to my attention).

By the way, all this is happening only days after it was decided that the Confederate flag would be removed from the North Carolina State Capitol.

4 thoughts on “North Carolina Republicans Want to Create a Christian Establishment

  1. John,

    Thanks for your notice of the 14th Amendment. To my Constitutional reading, creating some sort of Christian establishment in any state *would* have been permitted up until the Civil War. With the 14th Amendment, that becomes much trickier. There's an historical debate as to whether that was the intent of the 14th Amendment, but since the mid 20th century that's the way the courts have ruled.


  2. I think it has quite a bit to do with the Teabagger types and their vision of America should be regardless of what other people want or how federal laws work.


  3. I'm not sure that the bill is calling for a renewed establishment of religion so much as asserting that certain kinds of practices, in particular the practice of beginning county council sessions in prayer, are not prohibited by the First Amendment. In a weird way, the bill's sponsors do have a point—the First Amendment religion clauses did not apply to the states until Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), at the earliest.

    But that's the very most I can say for the bill. It's disheartening to see legislators attacking the whole idea that religion should be disestablished, rather than making the more defensible argument that certain practices do not constitute an establishment of religion. What would John Leland say?


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