As Americans become a more secular people, the church and the state are increasingly drawn into collisions in county halls and courthouses across the country, attempting to strike a balance between the spirit and the letter of the law.
Such confrontation isn’t new, and almost always centers around vice. Near the turn of the last century, Christians in the Temperance Movement led the effort to enact Prohibition; after that, they focused on purported indecency in literature; in the ‘50s it was illegal gambling, in the ‘60s it was recreational drugs, in the ‘70s it was music, and in the ‘80s it was pornography.
Today, Americans can sip Chablis while listening to 2 Live Crew and reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover, using a state-sanctioned scratch-off lottery ticket as a bookmark. Online pornography is a multi-billion dollar global industry, marijuana is legal in seven states and is decriminalized in many more.
But that doesn’t mean that the battles are over.
North Carolina’s most recent was that of government-supported prayer; while still largely a grey area, important rulings on the subject were recently made by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure that invocations before public meetings were inclusive and not so dominated by Christians as to convey a strong affiliation between the church and the state.
Some Western North Carolina governments — like the Haywood County Board of Commissioners — enacted significant changes to their practice of commissioner-led prayer, while others, like the town of Waynesville, have never prayed at all.
Such is the diversity of religiosity in WNC, which now serves as a backdrop to a controversial state law allowing local governments to expand the hours during which alcohol may be served or sold on Sundays, should they so choose.
Several Haywood governments have already heard arguments for and against the so-called “brunch bill.” One has passed it, one will likely not even hear it, and at least two others are in the process of gathering public input.
Elsewhere, Franklin is seeking public input on the bill but Bryson City leaders voted it down.
Over the past few weeks, public support has come mainly from local businesses interested in profiting from the measure, as well as economic developers and chambers of commerce.
Opposition has come mainly from two camps – those concerned with substance abuse, and those whose interpretations of the Bible lead them to denounce alcohol in general.
Given that Senate Bill 155 — signed on June 29 by Gov. Roy Cooper — only allows for an extra two hours a week during which a business can sell alcohol, the substance abuse argument has been rejected by most as spurious; during one local public hearing, it was acknowledged that preventing a change from noon to 10 a.m. wouldn’t likewise prevent alcoholics from acquiring alcohol, nor would it probably make alcoholics out of otherwise responsible consumers.
That leaves only the religious argument, which is still a powerful one in Western North Carolina.
But it wasn’t powerful enough to stop a countywide referendum last fall that, for the first time ever, allowed the legal sales of alcohol within Haywood County outside of organized municipalities.
While the steadily expanding presence of alcohol in the county over the past 30 years has been a concern for some, it’s important to note that the referendum — comprised of five separate questions — garnered between 52 and 68 percent support.
It’s no less important, however, to note that what may be right for one community may not be right for another, and what’s right for one constituency may not be right for another; now, elected officials will grapple with that inherent paradox of American government, attempting to separate — but not alienate — church and state.