With election season upon us, and a near constant stream of public jabs and rebuttals between incumbents and their challengers, we should focus on something besides the Americans that are running for office. Instead, let’s turn our attention to a rather peculiar set of state laws relating to elections and nonreligious Americans.
It’s well known that there aren’t many open atheists in Congress or in state government, and that atheists aren’t held in high esteem by potential voters. Some question our dedication to what they view as a “Christian nation” while others feel that they can’t relate to a candidate who doesn’t share the same faith as they do.
Whatever the reason, public distrust isn’t the only means by which atheists are discouraged for running from office. In fact, running for a spot in state legislatures as an atheist is outright illegal in some states. Obviously, these laws are trumped by the “No Religious Test Clause” of the United States Constitution, which is found in Article VI, paragraph 3, and states that:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
However, these laws are still on the books and have given atheist candidates trouble in the past. Cecil Bothwell, an atheist who in 2009 won an election for a Asheville, North Carolina city council seat, was almost unseated by local critics who pointed to a provision in North Carolina’s constitution that prohibited nonbelievers from being elected. This provision of the state constitution is similar to provisions in Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The provisions follow:
Arkansas,Article 19, Section 1:
No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.
Maryland, Article 37:
That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.
Mississippi, Article 14, Section 265:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.
North Carolina, Article 6, Section 8
The following persons shall be disqualified for office: Any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
South Carolina, Article 17, Section 4:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
Tennessee, Article 9, Section 2:
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
Texas, Article 1, Section 4:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
So, what do you think of these laws? Are they an affront to the secular nature of our local, state, and federal governments, or are they just antiquated but harmless relics from the past? Should there be an active effort to remove these anti-atheist provisions from the respective state constitutions, or should the nonreligious movement just let federal law trump these discriminatory provisions as conflicts arise?
I think that the legislatures of these states have a duty to eventually get around to removing these provisions and any other elements of their state constitutions that institutionalize discrimination. Now might not be the time due to the large number of pressing issues that plague this nation, but the change ought to eventually be made. Atheists, or any other religious minority for that matter, shouldn’t have to go to court after winning an election just so that federal law is upheld and discrimination is rejected.
Matthew Bulger is the legislative and program assistant for the American Humanist Association.