Governing for Christians

File photo of a liquor store in North Carolina. The General Assembly rejected a proposal to allow state ABC stores to open on Sundays.
File photo of a liquor store in North Carolina. The General Assembly rejected a proposal to allow state ABC stores to open on Sundays. N&O file photo

Last week the General Assembly rejected a proposal to allow ABC stores to open on Sunday. North Carolina is one of only eight states that bar liquor store sales on the traditional Christian Sabbath.

“I think we need Sunday free for the Lord’s Day,” said Rep. Pat Hurley, Republican from Randolph County.

Quick reminder. The state of North Carolina has no power to declare a “Lord’s Day” or to order its observance.

I admit it’s possible for Hurley to be confused on the point. In January, the Rowan County Commission finally paid the ACLU $285,000 in attorney fees for insisting, since 2007, on Christian prayers to open its proceedings. The constitution-violating, debt-inducing commissioners called the ACLU “bullies”.

A few months back, the state House passed a bill drafted by the N.C. Prayer Caucus requiring a sign reading “In God We Trust” be placed in public schools. Rep. Larry Pittman explained, dishonestly, the law didn’t promote religion. It just “acknowledges an important part of our history.” Not to be outdone, Alamance County now wants to put a godly sticker on its cars.

In 2015, Senate leader Phil Berger pushed through a statute allowing magistrates to refuse to marry same-sex couples, even after the Supreme Court had established their equality rights, based on the purported religious objections of state officials. Christian magistrates, the theory goes, need not offer equal protection to all Tar Heels. We have two tiers of state funded, state empowered public officers — religious ones and the rest.

The U.S. Supreme Court, itself, increasingly inches towards accepted Christian privilege. The Masterpiece Cupcake decision looks to open a door allowing Christian conservatives to treat much of the law as optional. There, an anti-gay business owner sought an exemption to civil rights laws based on what he claimed was a religious mandate. He didn’t allege that equality laws are unconstitutional; just that he should be given a privilege to disobey them. Special rights for believers.

In January, the energized right flank of the Supreme Court — justices Alito, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch and Thomas — expressed enthusiasm for overturning decades of case law and expanding rights of religious exemption. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a public high school football coach insisted on leaving his team unattended at the end of games, proceeding to the 50-yard-line, and ceremoniously praying in front of the crowd in violation of school district policies.

But the justices showed no similar affection for religious liberty in upholding Donald Trump’s notorious Muslim travel ban. All the world, except the five justices in the majority, understood the restriction to be what the president repeatedly promised it to be — a religion-driven preclusion. The court, though, was openly satisfied by pretext. Fake justification is enough for banning Muslims.

And two weeks ago, the high court’s conservatives rejected a Muslim inmate’s request that an imam be present during his execution instead of Alabama’s state-provided Christian chaplain. Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor called the majority decision “profoundly wrong” — violating the constitutional command that one religious denomination not be preferred to another. The demand for robust religious accommodation apparently runs only one way.

A few years ago, state Sen. Jerry Tillman told his hometown paper he was tired of being criticized for not aggressively expanding the state voucher program. “People say it’s great that these vouchers go to Christian schools,” he noted. “But do they want to see money go to a Catholic school, or one that teaches Islam?” Ugh.

Tillman’s instincts are hideous. But still, he ought to have a talk with Rep. Hurley.

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.