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Religious libertyIf you had any doubts about how ridiculous it is for government officials to be commencing public events with religious prayers, check out the squabble between two members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners as explained in this morning’s Charlotte Observer.

As reporters Tim Funk and David Perlmutt explain, the dispute apparently developed as the result of the Board of Commissioners’ policy of rotating the responsibility for opening meetings with prayer between members. One member, though herself a church goer, did not want to to lead prayers.  This, in turn, led another member to take offense and conclude that the other member was not pulling her weight. The dispute spiraled from there into an embarrassing spat that featured name-calling and all sorts of troubling statements about religion.

The Mecklenburg mess, of course, comes right on the heels of the recent debacle in Lincoln County in which a commissioner said the following about the possibility of his board opening its meetings with anything other than a Christian prayer:

“Other religions, or whatever, are in the minority. The U.S. was founded on Christianity. I don’t believe we need to be bowing to the minorities. The U.S. and the Constitution were founded on Christianity. This is what the majority of people believe in, and it’s what I’m standing up for.”

This kind of nonsense shows precisely why it is impossible for government to get involved in promoting prayer and religion in a useful way. For prayer to have any real meaning, it can’t just be comprised of sanitized and generic platitudes. But once one goes down the road of making it meaningful and specific, it inevitably excludes large swaths of the population with whose views and beliefs it does not comport.

That’s why the best solution (as the American Founding Fathers figured out almost 230 years ago) is to leave prayer to individuals and private institutions and keep public events and institutions religion-free. It’s better for government and better for religion.

Commentary
Religious liberty

Image: www.aclu.org

Notwithstanding the recent efforts of a noisy minority on the American religious right to distort its real and historical meaning, “religious freedom” is a critically important American value that needs to be celebrated and strengthened.

And happily, the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of North Carolina did just that yesterday when it ruled against the coercive, state-sponsored prayers of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. Mike Meno of the ACLU of North Carolina explains in this news release:

Court Rules Rowan County’s Coercive Prayer Policy Violated Constitution
Federal Court Rules Policy Was Discriminatory in ACLU Lawsuit Filed On Behalf of Three Rowan County Residents Who Were Excluded by Coercive Prayer Practice

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A federal court today ruled that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity.

“When Plaintiffs wish to advocate for local issues in front of the Board, they should not be faced with the choice between staying seated and unobservant, or acquiescing to the prayer practice of the Board,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Beaty of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. “[…]The Board’s practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected Commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.” Read More

News

IBM, which employs thousands in the Triangle area, doesn’t want North Carolina to adopt a controversial religious freedom bill that opponents say would allow discrimination against the LGBT community.

The company’s senior executive in North Carolina, Robert Greenberg, wrote a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory noting the company’s opposition, as reported by WRAL earlier this morning.

From Greenberg’s letter:

IBM has a large number of employees and retirees in North Carolina and is gravely concerned that this legislation, if enacted, would enable discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or identity. We call on members of the Legislature to defeat this bill.

Our perspective is grounded in IBM’s 104-year history and our deep legacy of diversity and inclusion — a legacy to which we remain strongly committed today. IBM is opposed to discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. We urge you to work with the Legislature to ensure that any legislation in this area is not discriminatory.

Several other tech companies have spoken against the bill, which would allow businesses to choose who they do work for based on religious beliefs. Opponents have said that essentially is a license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. Similar legislation that became law in Indiana ignited a national firestorm of opposition.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst wrote earlier this month that his Raleigh-based company embraces diversity and called the oroposed North Carolina legislation “divisive” and harmful to the state’s economy.

Ltr_NCMcCrory_RFRA_040715.pdf by NC Policy Watch

Commentary

Rev. William Barber and North Carolina Christian writer Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove recently authored the following essay on the close connection between modern “religious freedom” proposals and the dark history of racial discrimination in the U.S.  We’re delighted to publish it here.

Extremists also remember Selma:
The ugly history behind “religious freedom” laws

By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

From Ava Duvernay’s award-winning film to President Obama’s speech at the Edmond Pettus Bridge, to the thousands we crossed the Bridge with and the millions that joined by TV, America has remembered Selma this year. We have honored grassroots leaders who organized for years, acknowledged the sacrifices of civil rights workers, and celebrated the great achievement of the Voting Rights Act. At the same time, we have recalled the hatred and fear of white supremacy in 1960’s Alabama. But we may not have looked closely enough at this ugly history. Even as we celebrate one of America’s great strides toward freedom, the ugliest ghosts of our past haunt us in today’s “religious freedom” laws.

Many able commentators have pointed out the problem with laws which purport to protect a First Amendment right to religious freedom by creating an opportunity to violate another’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. But little attention has been paid to the struggle out of which the 14th Amendment was born—a struggle which continued to play out in Selma 50 years ago and is very much alive in America’s state houses today. We cannot understand the new “religious freedom” law in Indiana and others like it apart from the highly sexualized backlash against America’s first two Reconstructions.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was part and parcel of America’s first Reconstruction, guaranteeing for the first time that people who had been legally codified as three-fifths persons would enjoy equal protection under the law in this country. The very notion of equal protection for black Americans was so offensive that it inspired an immediate backlash. Two features of resistance to America’s first Reconstruction are essential to note.

First, it was deeply religious. White preachers led the charge, calling themselves “Redeemers” and framing equal justice for black Americans as a moral danger. At the same time, the threat was explicitly sexualized. Black men were portrayed in respectable newspapers as “ravishing beasts,” eager to rape white women.

Here in our native North Carolina, white vigilantes were armed and encouraged to defend their women, leading to the “Wilmington Race Riot” of 1898. Violent demonstrations of white men’s sexual fear led to lynchings throughout the South and Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ida B. Wells, the courageous African-American journalist from Memphis, did the dangerous investigative work to show that the great majority of these lynchings were not about sex but political power.

When the Civil Rights Movement—a Second Reconstruction—was finally able to draw national attention to the vicious patterns of Jim Crow in the 1960’s, the challenge to white power was again conflated with sexual fear. As Danielle McGuire has chronicled in her book “The Dark End of the Street,” civil rights workers were consistently accused of wanting interracial sex and/or having homosexual tendencies.  Read More

Commentary

Mooresville writer John Deem is not impressed with state House Speaker Tim Moore’s recent statements about the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and its potential impact on North Carolina’s “brand”:

Speaker Moore: “I’m all about the brand, ’bout that brand, no trouble …”

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore’s promise of a pragmatic approach in deliberations over the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act is all the confirmation we need that the issue has little to do with the protection of faith-guided principles, and everything to do with pure, partisan politics.

Moore’s explanation that he and his colleagues should be guided by how passage of any such legislation could potentially “harm North Carolina’s brand” also is an egregious display of political cowardliness in the face of right-handed flamethrowers from of his own party.

Either the “religious freedom” of North Carolinians is being threatened, or it isn’t. If Speaker Moore believes that it is, then pragmatism be damned. He should push ahead with the legislation at full speed. Protecting the inalienable rights of North Carolinians should always trump concerns about how the state looks to outsiders, after all.

If Moore disagrees with the proposed legislation’s dire warnings of religious oppression, then he should say so (as Gov. McCrory and other influential Republicans already have) and expose the conservative mavericks in the House as extremists bent on using Christianity – a faith rooted in grace – as a tool to separate themselves from their neighbors who might not look, think or love exactly as they do.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is either a battle cry of freedom or a sacrilegious sham. I look forward to hearing what “brand” of legislation Speaker Moore thinks it is.

– John Deem is an award-winning writer and editor living in Mooresville.