by Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland, Executive Director
The separation of Church and state outlined in our U.S. Constitution might be the most misunderstood part of our nation’s laws. The newly released North Carolina budget demonstrates why we should understand it better.
In short, the religious person has the right to observe and practice one’s faith without state interference. The state has no right to mandate or sponsor a particular faith tradition or religious belief.
Yet, nearly $26 million of our state budget is earmarked for direct grants to churches fronting a conservative religious agenda and for funding anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, the spawn of a conservative religious agenda. That is state sponsored religion, and every N.C. taxpayer should be outraged by this blatant misuse of tax dollars.
If the $26 million was put into a fund to which any religious group could apply, using the process to explain how the money would promote “public purposes,” a caveat of the N.C. Constitution, then maybe the violation wouldn’t be so egregious. That didn’t happen.
Instead, legislators submitted appropriations for religious organizations in their districts, such as Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton who managed to garner $1.5 million for mold and asbestos removal for a church in his district. Not surprisingly, no appropriations were awarded to religious groups working for commonsense gun legislation, providing shelter for refugees and immigrants, exposing environmental degradation, or protecting voting rights — all of which and more the North Carolina Council of Churches promotes.
If there’s money in the budget for churches, let’s be fair about it.
But there shouldn’t be money in the budget for churches. When a religious organization receives government funding, it should be to assist the government in dispensing its services. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services contacted the Council seeking COVID vaccination sites in rural communities. Helping DHHS distribute vaccines is a far cry from receiving money to renovate a church building with taxpayer dollars. Incidentally, neither the Council of Churches nor the church vaccine sites received remuneration, but lots of rural and minority residents got vaccinated. Payment enough for us.
Crisis pregnancy clinics received almost $19 million while organizations that offer contraceptive care, pre- and post-natal care, or abortions got nothing. The Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, an umbrella organization overseeing crisis pregnancy centers, wins the prize for most money received by a single religious organization — $12.5 million.
Refusing to perform abortions based on one’s religious convictions is protected by the state constitution. Government funding to support the refusal and provide misleading health care information is a violation of the state constitution. By funding these “crisis” pregnancy centers, which are anti-abortion centers, the state is promoting a sectarian religious teaching about abortion.
The state also expanded access to Opportunity Scholarship vouchers. According to a Duke Children’s Law Clinic report, 92% of voucher funding goes to religious schools, the majority of which trend conservative. Where once the state provided money to low-income families to pay tuition at schools fostering conservative religious teachings, it’s now offering money for anyone to pay tuition at schools fostering conservative religious teachings, many of which brazenly denigrate the LGBTQ+ community. That’s state sponsored religion hiding behind the 8% of private schools that offer a “sound, basic education.”
Voucher funding will amount to a whopping half billion dollars by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, our public schools suffer, teachers are underpaid, counselors, nurses and social workers are stretched to the breaking point, and facility maintenance is deferred.
Look out North Carolina, our tax dollars are privileging a biased religious agenda. The separation between church and state grows hazy and the N.C. Constitution is being disregarded.