By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
January 2, 2013
RALEIGH — Two steps forward, one step back may be the best way to describe 2012, as North Carolina’s conservative Christians marked some major victories, suffered some defeats and saw some legislation, both good and bad, reversed by the courts. Following is a look at 10 of the most significant events of the last year.
Marriage Wins Big!
On May 8, more than 61 percent of Tar Heel voters cast ballots to proclaim marriage as between one man and one woman — a definition now inserted into the State Constitution.
“Today is a great day for marriage — a great day for North Carolina — and a great day for America!” the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League said at the Vote FOR Marriage celebration on election night.Some half a million people cast ballots before the election, breaking state records for early voting in a primary. The amendment was most popular in rural counties such as Graham, where 89 percent of voters approved it, and opposed in more urban areas like Orange, Wake and Mecklenburg counties. The final vote ended a nearly decade long battle during which legislation was repeatedly introduced to allow North Carolinians to vote on this critical question. It was only in September of 2011 that new leadership at the Legislature put the measure on the ballot so that the Tar Heel state could join 30 others that protect marriage in their state constitutions. Dr. Creech said the push to protect marriage faced many obstacles, not the least of which were detractors at the White House and the Governor’s mansion, outspoken and big-spending Hollywood celebrities and even some misguided ministers who opposed the measure. His hope was that North Carolina’s victory would set the tone for marriage votes in other states in November, which unfortunately was not the case.
Planned Parenthood defunded
State lawmakers found a way to reroute some $343,000 that would have gone to the state chapter of the nation’s largest abortion provider, instead sending it to county health departments in a budget bill that was initially vetoed by Gov. Beverly Perdue.
The General Assembly’s veto override marked the second time the Legislature had pushed through a plan to defund Planned Parenthood. The first effort failed a court challenge when a judge ruled that lawmakers could not single out a specific agency that provides services to the state. The second bill didn’t do so. Instead it changed some rules for the Department of Health and Human Services making it illegal for HHS to contract with “private providers” of family planning services. As it stands, Planned Parenthood is the only provider of such services with which the department contracts.
North Carolina lawmakers’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood were part of a larger effort by Republican legislators across the nation.
Human Trafficking Initiatives Passed
One of the 10 worse states in America for human trafficking, North Carolina made strides to address the problem with increased penalties for buying or selling a child and a new commission to research the crime and propose ways to fight it.
Senate Bill 910, introduced by Sen. Bob Atwater (D-Chatham) and promoted by the Christian Action League, which took a lead role in this issue, makes the unlawful sale, surrender or purchase of a minor a Class F Felony punishable by a fine of at least $5,000 and a prison term of roughly 10 months to three years depending on aggravating or mitigating factors. Prior to the bill’s passage, the sale of a child was only a Class 1 misdemeanor, comparable to driving while license revoked.
Also lawmakers added a Human Trafficking Commission to the state budget. The 12-member group within the Department of Justice is to facilitate research to explore the ways human trafficking is occurring in North Carolina and its links to international and domestic crimes and to educate law enforcement and social services personnel as well as the general public about how to help counter this modern day slavery.
Christian Action League lobbyist Sarah Bowman, who worked with victims’ services organizations across the state to push for the bill, called the creation of the commission a “huge advancement in the fight against human trafficking in North Carolina” and said the group will serve the “desperately needed role of changing intragovernmental policies to better address human trafficking as well as recommending legislative changes based on the data collected.”
Cherokee gambling expands; more casinos approved
On what Rev. Creech called one of the saddest days in North Carolina last year, lawmakers ignored warnings about addictions associated with expanded gambling and gave their stamp of approval to a bill that paved the way for live dealers and full-fledged Las Vegas-style gaming not only at the current Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee, but two additional ones on reservation lands. Senate Bill 582 activated a 30-year compact already signed by the Governor and the Eastern Band of Cherokees.
“Las Vegas has now come to western North Carolina. The passage of this bill, in my estimation, was bi-partisan ‘Tom Foolery,’” said Dr. Creech. “The measure will create a few hundred jobs, but also thousands of gambling addicts.”
Proponents of the gambling expansion touted the promise of 400 jobs and the fact that the state is supposed to get 4 to 8 percent of the profits from new games, an estimated $2 million to $3 million per year, initially earmarked for schools. Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Haywood) called the legislation “socially corrosive,” and others from both parties argued passionately against it, but gambling supporters cast it as an economic incentives bill of sorts. The expansion took effect in August when full-scale table games began.
Tar Heel voters make some good choices
While conservatives across the U.S. mourned losses at the national level on election night, the political picture was a bit brighter in North Carolina. The state welcomed Pat McCrory as its first Republican governor in 20 years and also re-elected Justice Paul Newby, the only candidate endorsed this year by the Christian Action League, to the N.C. Supreme Court.
“This was a very important step to keep the conservative/liberal balance of the state’s High Court at four-to-three,” Dr. Creech said as the ballots were counted. “We can depend on Justice Newby to continue to defend the North Carolina constitution for another eight years.”
He said the CAL looks forward to working with Gov. McCrory who has promised that state government will get smaller during his term and that the business climate will improve.
Tar Heel Republicans took nine U.S. Congressional seats where Democrats had held a 7-6 edge. And at the Legislature, the GOP tightened its hold on both chambers, gaining at least one seat in the Senate, where the split was already 31-19, and laying claim to 77 of the 120 House spots.
Dr. Creech commended North Carolina voters for their conservative choices, but put the focus on cooperation as it will take lawmakers on both sides of the aisle working together to make progress in the new year.
U.S. Supreme Court rejects Forsyth County prayer case
Christian leaders and legal advocates across the nation were disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Forsyth County’s appeal of a case regarding prayer prior to public meetings. Dr. Creech said the court’s decision to let stand a 2-1 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will lead not only to the “repression of religion and its positive influences on our culture,” but also to the “ascent of atheistic dogmas that threaten to reduce us to a fraction of what we were.”
The 4th Circuit had ruled in July 2011 that even though the County Commission invited any and all faith groups to sign up to offer an invocation prior to its meetings, giving them free rein to pray as they saw fit, its policy was unconstitutional because the majority of those who responded were Christians and prayed in Jesus’ name.
Judge Paul Niemeyer, in his dissenting opinion, lamented that in the ruling the court “dared to step in and regulate the language of prayer — the sacred dialogue between humankind and God.” The Forsyth County Commission voted 6-1 the following month to appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping the case would be overturned and that the results would clear up discrepancies among various lower court rulings involving legislative prayer.
Smoking ban upheld
North Carolina’s 2-year-old ban on smoking in restaurants and bars withstood its second legal challenge in March with a unanimous Court of Appeals ruling affirming that the law does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The three-judge panel struck down a District Court ruling that had virtually made the ban unenforceable in Pitt County, where owners of four Greenville nightclubs had argued in court that the law was unfair because it applied to bars but not to private country clubs. The District Court had agreed, but Judge Linda Stephens wrote for the Court of Appeals that the statute’s verbiage should be interpreted to allow smoking only in private, nonprofit country clubs.
Meanwhile the ban enjoyed continued popularity across the state.
“A poll conducted a year ago showed that 78 percent were very supportive and pleased with the law,” said Pam Seamans, executive director of the N.C. Alliance for Health, a statewide coalition of health and wellness agencies that had fought for its passage in 2009. “People like it and have begun to expect their eating establishments to be smoke free.”
Federal ruling another red light for “Choose Life” plates
U.S. District Court Judge James Fox issued a ruling Dec. 7, declaring North Carolina’s newly approved Choose Life license plates unconstitutional because the state doesn’t offer pro-abortion forces a similar avenue of expression.
“Viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment” is how the judge described North Carolina’s intent to offer a Choose Life plate, agreeing with the legal challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state in September 2011, months after legislators approved more than 60 new plate designs.
“Where in the First Amendment does it mandate every viewpoint be allowed equal representation? If this is really the case, why can’t we have prayer in the schools? Why can’t Intelligent Design or Creationism be taught on human origins in our public schools? Why can’t we hang the Ten Commandments in our nation’s courtrooms?” Rev. Creech asked.
He pointed out that viewpoint discrimination was the exact legal premise used to support the issuance of Choose Life plates in New York and in a similar case in New Jersey and urged the state’s Attorney General to appeal the ruling. Dr. Creech also added that pro-abortion advocates have had the same opportunity to lobby the Legislature as pro-life groups.
“For those eight or nine years when pro-life groups were seemingly getting nowhere with lawmakers, where were the abortion folks? They could have been right there pushing for their own tag. But they waited until Choose Life was in the homestretch and then demanded the fruits of the pro-life camp’s labor,” he said.
Proceeds from the Choose Life tag were earmarked for the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a network of more than 60 centers that offer life-affirming help for pregnant women and their families across the state. So far, the Attorney General’s Office has not announced whether it will appeal the ruling.
N. C. Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Video Sweepstakes
The state’s ban on video sweepstakes is constitutional and will be enforced, according to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled on two cases challenging the law in December and then denied a request to temporarily delay the ruling’s effect. The court’s unanimous opinion, written by Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson, overturned two lower court rulings in cases brought by Hest Technologies and Sandhill Amusements — suits which argued that video sweepstakes are speech protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruling, which some sweepstakes operators have admitted they will still try to circumvent, recognized the General Assembly’s continued efforts to ban the games since 2007.
“While one can question whether these systems meet the traditional definition of gambling — because plaintiffs have ostensibly separated the consideration or ‘bet’ element from the game of chance feature by offering ‘free’ sweepstakes entries — it is clear that the General Assembly considered these sweepstakes systems to be the functional equivalent of gambling, thus presenting the same social evils as those it identified in traditional forms of gambling,” Hudson wrote after a brief summary of the ban’s embattled history, later adding, “What matters is that the General Assembly has identified a threat to the public and acted to address it.”
As to the core of the argument, the Court ruled that the legislation “regulates conduct and not protected speech.”
“I thought that it was stupendous news to hear our state’s highest court had upheld the ban we worked so hard with lawmakers to pass. But what a Christmas present to learn the industry has also been denied a temporary hold on the ban! These video sweepstakes operators have done their dirty work long enough, proliferating all over this state since the lower court rulings had overturned the ban. God willing, this is it –‘Game Over’ for them,” Dr. Creech said. The ban’s enforcement was expected to begin this week.
Federal Appeals Court orders rewrite of birth control mandate
Belmont Abbey College won a significant victory in its case against Obamacare in December when a federal appeals court ordered administration officials to rewrite the law to exempt religious institutions from the contraceptive mandate. The Roman Catholic institution in Gaston County had sued the White House over the portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that forced employers to provide free contraceptives in their insurance plans asserting that the law would require the school to defy church teachings.
As part of its decision, the court said it would hold the Obama administration to its promise to never implement the current birth control mandate and to create a new rule by August. It ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to give updates every 60 days, beginning in February, until a new rule is issued. The lawsuits will be held in abeyance until that time.
“The D.C. Circuit has now made it clear that government promises and press conferences are not enough to protect religious freedom,” Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the media. “The court is not going to let the government slide by on non-binding promises to fix the problem down the road.”
Although the new healthcare law includes a religious exemption, it is so narrow that most religious employers, including schools, are not exempt. There have been about 40 lawsuits related to the mandate according to the Christian Post.