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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

In Regard To Rowan Commissioners, 'Bless Their Hearts'

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

In the Bible belt that is the South, the role of church and state are often intertwined in such a manner as to appear one in the same.  But when it comes to divorcing the Christian faith from government practices, you begin to see the truth in the expression “the devil made me do it.”

Typically, the South is the only region in the nation where a majority of voters describe themselves as either “born-again” or “Evangelical Christians” in the exit polls.

Evangelical Born-Again Voters.jpg

A strong plurality (41%) of all 2008 voters who describe themselves as “born-again” or “evangelical Christians” were from the South.

In Rowan County, a yearlong controversy is coming to a tent revival-like atmosphere, with Tea Party-backed conservatives on the county commission leading the charge to continue specific references to Jesus Christ before their legislative session. 

As mentioned in the lawsuit filed by the ACLU, over 90 percent of the prayers offered by Rowan County commissioners were done in a specific, sectarian manner.

North Carolina is part of the Southern religious belt, especially with social and evangelical Christians. With the use of “in Jesus’ name” as a dominate component of the prayers opening the legislative session, the Rowan County Commission is running into similar hot waters as Forsyth County commissioners ran into in a 2011 legal challenge.

In Joyner et al. v. Forsyth County, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling by a federal district court judge that the use of specific, sectarian prayers to open commission meetings, in this case led by a local pastor, connected the commission too closely to Christianity. 

In Rowan County, it is the commissioners themselves — agents of the local government — who are leading the prayers at the beginning of their meetings. 

In the court’s ruling regarding Forsyth County, the displaying of a “preference for Christianity over other religions by the government” affiliated the board with “a specific faith or belief” that crossed the constitutional line.

In the Joyner case, the majority of the circuit court acknowledged that indeed, opening legislative sessions with prayer “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition” of the nation. 

But even with the nation’s history and the continued presence of chaplains leading both chambers of Congress in opening prayer, the courts have held that “not even the ‘unique history’ of legislative prayer can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.”

Mentioning of such “particular sects or creeds at the expense of others,” the 4th Circuit held, “violate ‘the clearest command of the [U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment] Establishment Clause’: that ‘one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’”

In a 2004 case from the town of Great Falls, SC, the 4th Circuit reinforced this principle that "one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another” when government officials seek to convene their legislative sessions. 

There is no doubt that the Rowan County commissioners are reflecting their political and religious beliefs in invoking a specific reference to Jesus Christ.  In fact, several candidates espoused their electoral victories to their open calls of Christianity in their campaigns. 

And now, with the decision of the commission to defend the county against the ACLU lawsuit, they get to profess their convictions in a court of law.

But when you have a court that has been declared one of the most conservative in the nation striking down repeated efforts at specific secular use of opening prayers, it is akin to defining insanity: Banging one’s head against a brick wall and expecting a different result each time.

Or, in another fine Southern tradition, may all of God’s children bless their hearts.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ