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North Carolina county at the center of argument over separation of church and state

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A county in the North Carolina foothills is facing scrutiny over the separation of church and state after leaders there approved a Christian heritage proclamation. The five-member Wilkes County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed the proclamation just before Christmas calling for residents to affirm “Christianity’s important influence in the foundation and life of our County, State, and Nation.”

Reporter Jacob Biba wrote about it for The Assembly and he joins me now.

Marshall Terry: Can you give us a little more information about this proclamation? What else does it say, and does it have, you know, the force of law behind it?

Jacob Biba: There's really not much else of substance in the proclamation. There's a couple quotes from Jefferson, Madison and other founding fathers that referenced God or Christianity that were actually pulled from a Christian Heritage Week proclamation issued by Pennsylvania's governor in 1997. It goes on to quote North Carolina’s state constitution, which our Constitution describes God as a sovereign ruler of nations and it mentions the fact that there are a lot of churches and Christian charities in America. It definitely doesn't have force of law. The sheriff in Wilkes County certainly isn't patrolling the county and making sure people are celebrating their Christian heritage there.

Terry: How do the religious demographics of Wilkes County break down?

Biba: Most people in Wilkes County I spoke to would tell me that the county is 99% Christian and that you really can't throw a rock without hitting a church there. It's definitely an exaggeration, but it's really not too far off. The most recent data I found showed that more than 80% of the people there identify as white Christians, which is one of the highest concentrations of white Christians in the country, and most of those people belong to Southern Baptist churches or non-denominational evangelical churches.

Terry: Now what’s behind this proclamation? What are those county commissioners saying?

Biba: Well, county commissioners aren't saying much, even at the meeting when the proclamation was passed, there was very little discussion other than public comment for and against it, which was evenly split. But it did get a pretty strong round of applause after it was passed. No one has really come forward to say why the county needed this proclamation.

There's one theory that the board chair, Stoney Greene, he's the one who requested county staff to draw up the proclamation, he wanted it passed to bolster his chances in the upcoming Republican primary for House seat 94. He's running against a few people, but his main opponent is Blair Eddins, who said in the campaign video that he would go with God's word over with the people or his party wanted. So a number of people I spoke to think it was both religious conviction and a political move by Greene to pander to the district’s evangelical base.

Terry: This proclamation has been met with criticism. Where is that coming from and what’s their argument?

Biba: There's certainly some opposition coming from inside Wilkes County. A number of residents expressed concern that the proclamation excludes non-Christians. I think for a lot of them, many of whom are Christian, the county is just wasting time and money with this proclamation when they could be taking action that they think is actually rooted in Christian values. Specifically, a number of people mentioned that there's a growing number of people who are unhoused in the county and that they need help.

But you do have outside groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, they sent a couple letters to the county commission demanding the proclamation be rescinded. Their main argument revolves around the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which bars government from establishing an official religion. But it also bars the government from favoring one religion over another, which is what they believe the proclamation does in Wilkes County. There's also County Commissioner Keith Elmore, who voted for the proclamation, and he's coming out saying, with the looming legal threats, he's really seeing the proclamation as a waste of county time and resources, He's hoping that they can pull the proclamation back, rework it and pass it again.

Terry: Now this isn’t the first proclamation of this kind in North Carolina, right?

Biba: No. Gov. Hunt issued these proclamations in the mid-1990s. There was one even issued in Asheville, where I lived, around that time. But the main difference between these and the one issued in Wilkes is that those earlier proclamations were just limited to one week out of the year. This one in Wilkes County seemingly runs forever.

Terry: But now, there's a bigger context here with worries about the rise of Christian nationalism across the U.S. How does that national story factor into this local proclamation in Wilkes County?

Biba: For some of the people in Wilkes County who oppose this proclamation, they're really aware of the rise of Christian nationalism, which is this idea that America was founded as a Christian nation and should be defined by Christianity. People became more aware of it after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and what's happened in many states to restrict abortion after Roe fell. Back in 2021 actually, commissioners in Wilkes County passed a Right to Life proclamation that had overwhelming support in the county. An early draft even called for the county to become a sanctuary for the "preborn."

But there were similar arguments then — why not take action to actually help people? In this case, children that were already born, you know, specifically the ones sleeping in the county’s DSS office or living in poverty. Now, with this proclamation, some people in the county just see this as another step toward the adoption of a Christian nationalist agenda, which is trickling up and down all levels of government now. They see that as leading to more actions like reintroduction of school prayer, or declaring Wilkes County as a sanctuary for the unborn, library book bans, and things of that nature, that would exclude other people.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.