For atheists, the First Amendment is a one-way street. They don’t believe in “freedom of religion” but “freedom from religion.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to the Onslow County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 16, asking the board to stop Sheriff Ed Brown from creating any more ads about religion.
Sheriff Brown published an advertisement in The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C., written in letter format and addressed it to “All Decent and Respectable Citizens of a Decent and Respectable Society.” The FFRF wants the Board of Commissioners to stop him from publishing similar advertisements in the future. The FFRF also wants Brown to issue an apology, and says the board should take disciplinary action against him.
The First Amendment, if it even applies to the states, states the following:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As you can see, the prohibition is addressed to Congress not to the state of North Carolina or its counties. In fact, the first Amendment was demanded by the states to keep the national government and its courts out of the religious business of the states. Even if the First Amendment does apply to the states, there is this line: “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. So what the FFRF is attempting to do is have the county commissioners violate the Constitution.
Then there are the provisions that prohibit the government from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” So it seems to me that Sherrif Brown is on solid constitutional ground.
North Carolina’s constitution has an interesting history when it comes to religion. Article XXXII of North Carolina’s 1776 Constitution is specifically Christian by stating the following qualifications for public officers in the state:
“No person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of 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.”
This provision remained in force until 1835 when it was amended by changing the word “Protestant” to “Christian,” and as so amended remained in force until the Constitution of 1868 which describes North Carolina as a “Christian State” (Art. XI, sec. 7). The present Preamble reads:
“We, the people of the State of North Carolina, grateful to Almighty God, the Sovereign Ruler of Nations, for the preservation of the American Union and the existence of our civil, political and religious liberties, and acknowledging our dependence upon Him for the continuance of those blessings to us and our posterity, do, for the more certain security thereof and for the better government of this State, ordain and establish this Constitution.
The following was included in Sheriff Brown’s ad: “When America turns back to God’s Law and man's standards established from God’s Law, good and decent things will turn around for All Americans.” How is this statement a violation of the North Carolina Constitution when it describes God as “the Sovereign Ruler of nations”? A sovereign ruler has rules. Rules are laws.
Is their historical precedent for government officials publishing religious statements in newspapers?
George Washington’s 1789 “Thanksgiving Proclamation” was published in the October 14th issue of the Massachusetts Centinel and includes the president's signature. The Preamble states that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Like North Carolina’s present constitution, Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation describes God as “Lord and Ruler of Nations.”
If Sheriff Brown’s advertisement violates either the Federal or state of North Carolina constitution, then President Washington, who was present at the drafting of the national Constitution and the First Amendment, was a significant violator of the law. I guess that puts Sheriff Brown in good company.
Just so you know, Sheriff Brown paid for the ads with this own money.
The people at the Freedom From Religion Foundation are either ignorant of this history or hope that the majority of people who read The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C. are. They are also playing the “fear factor” card. They’re hoping that a threat of a lawsuit will persuade the commissioners to issue a reprimand to the sheriff. I'll keep you posted.