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Morning Memo: GOP not united on budget; Tillis explains abortion vote

REPUBLICANS SCRAMBLE TO PASS THEIR OWN BUDGET: Ten House Republicans voted against their party's $20.6 billion spending plan, including one of the chief budget writers. GOP leaders held an extra lengthy caucus meeting Tuesday to whip members to vote for the bill but hours before hand lobbyists reported that it looked like it could fail.

The House passed the budget on a 66-52 preliminary vote. … It’s somewhat unusual for the majority party to lose more than a handful of its members’ on a budget vote. It’s even rarer for a budget committee leader to vote against the budget as did Rep. Linda Johnson, a Kannapolis Republican.“I was not pleased with the education budget,” Johnson said. (More below.)

THOM TILLIS SETS HIS ABORTION VOTE STRAIGHT: Every move House Speaker Thom Tillis makes is viewed through the prism of his U.S. Senate campaign in 2014. And for weeks the Republican's rationale for supporting the House's much-debated abortion measure remained quiet. Asked about it Tuesday, Tillis said "it happens to be something that I support and I thought if I didn't, they'd say, 'Why didn't you?' so I thought would solve the question by making it very clear where I stood on the bill." It puts Tillis, who is considered a moderate Republican, in the same position as Rick Santorum. (Read why below.)

***Keep reading for more North Carolina political intelligence in today's Dome Morning Memo. Send news and tips to dome@newsobserver.com.***

Despite ACLU warning, General Assembly prays

Earlier this month the American Civil Liberties Union warned the state General Assembly it had to stop opening its sessions with predominately Christian prayers, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review an appellate ruling involving the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.

Are House and Senate leaders listening? Yesterday both chambers convened their brief sessions with Christian prayers.

“The practice continues to be unlawful and unconstitutional,” ACLU North Carolina chapter legal director said today.

The ACLU had expressed its concern in a letter to the attorney general, asking him to advise legislators to stop. Although the letter gave Attorney General Roy Cooper until today to respond, he has not yet done so, Parker said.

 

House leaders react to ACLU prayer warning

Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union sent the attorney general a warning letter pointing out that the current state of case law prevents the General Assembly from opening its sessions with exclusively Christian prayer. Today, House leadership responded by issuing a joint statement.

Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, said the letter would be carefully reviewed. Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican from Apex, said the practice in the House is different from the case out of Forsyth County because members volunteer to pray.

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that governments must take action to ensure prayers aren’t just Christian. If left to run its own course, the court said, the majority religion would in effect be forced on everyone.

Tillis couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the civil rights group: “The ACLU has an affinity for pushing a radical, far-left agenda that is out of touch with most North Carolinians.”

ACLU warns General Assembly on prayer

The American Civil Liberties Union N.C. Legal Foundation is making good on its promise to stop the state General Assembly from saying predominately Christian prayers at the opening of every day’s session.

The ACLU today sent a letter to Attorney General Roy Cooper asking him to come up with a policy that would prevent it.

The civil rights organization said last month that it would be contacting local and state government throughout North Carolina, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review an appellate ruling involving Forsyth County’s Board of Commissioners. In that case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that sectarian prayer in a government setting was a violation of the First Amendment.

As a result, the ACLU is advising Cooper that the House and Senate practice of praying in the Christian religion a significant majority of the time runs afoul of the court decision. Its letter quotes the court’s ruling that “faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have got it wrong and others got it right.”

The ACLU also points out that the appellate court ruling requires government take an active role in diversifying prayers and not just allow “all-comers;” otherwise, the faith of the majority would necessarily predominate. The ACLU says nonsectarian prayers are permitted.

UPDATE: Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, says: "We will share the letter when we receive it with the General Assembly leadership so that legislators are aware of the ACLU's concerns." 

Prayers and petitions

Some lawmakers' offices have received faxed petitions asking members to reverse what critics call a ban on "the forbidden name of 'Jesus'" during prayers in the state House.

Earlier this week, House Speaker Joe Hackney named a committee of legislators to review the guidelines for prayer in the House chamber after a guest chaplain complained he was asked not to refer to Jesus.

Rev. Ron Baity of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem said he declined to give a nonsectarian prayer at the opening of the House session in late May. He gave the prayer he intended to give, but was then told his services were no longer needed, Baity told media outlets.

Hackney's office received a 180-page faxed petition filled with signatures of people who say a prohibition on prayers "in Jesus name" is unconstitutional.

"Jesus is not an illegal word, the Bible is not a banned book and evangelistic speech is not a crime," said the letter, signed by Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt of The Pray In Jesus Name Project, a Colorado-based group.

Hackney spokesman Bill Holmes said at least one other House member had also received the fax.

The eight-member bipartisan committee will review guidelines for prayers in the chamber. Each day's session typically begins with a nonsectarian prayer from an invited House member or volunteer member of the clergy.

Prayer for judgement, continued

The opening prayer of today's special session called for "tender mercies."

Here is the complete text of the prayer by Rev. James H. Harry, House chaplain: 

Let us pray together.

Merciful God, you alone are sovereign over the world and all that is in it, and you alone are the final arbiter of truth and justice. As pilgrims making our way through this often weary world, we confess that each of us is fallible and not without error. Extend your tender mercies upon us in this hour and forgive us where we have gone astray. Enable us to both receive and extol mercy, so that our forgiven past can become an asset to a more dedicated future.

With humility we pray.

Amen. 

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