atheism constitution states christianity prohibition politics
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atheism constitution states christianity prohibition politics
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The constitutions of eight American states still include language that prohibits atheists from holding public office — 59 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously (in 1961) that the federal Constitutional prohibition against states having a “religious test” for public office also encompasses discrimination against atheists.

Although not news, this fact is well worth repeating. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution declares that no “religious test” should ever be required for federal office — or, after the 1961 ruling, for state or local office, either.

We can fairly view these artifact believers-only statues in state Constitutions like “whites only” drinking fountains if they had been left in place long after they were declared illegal and, thus, were effectively obsolete.

Such long-ignored relics, if not publicly obliterated, remain perpetual, discriminatory insults on our republican landscape — a subliminal message that things haven’t really changed (and might fully revert). Court cases protesting denial of a state office candidacy due to atheism have been rare since the early 1990s. “Whites only” fountains are now only found in American museums and old photographs.

I last posted about this topic in 2019, here.

You’ve probably never heard of Roy Torcaso, the plaintiff in the 1961 Supreme Court case, Torcaso vs. Watkins, Clerk, in which justices ruled that the bookkeeper was legally entitled to serve as a Maryland notary public even though he refused — contrary to the state’s Constitution — to declare he believed in God.

That Torasco is not a household name today partly informs why we still have federally unconstitutional anti-atheist statutes in eight state constitutions, including in his own state, Maryland (out of sight, out of mind), which also disallows atheist jurors and court witnesses. The other still-anti-atheist jurisdictions include Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas — and Pennsylvania, whose Constitution, does not specifically disqualify candidates for state posts due to religion, “as long as they believe in God ‘and a future state of rewards and punishments’ (a reference to heaven and hell),” according to a 2014 New York Times article.

YouTube video

And in a similar vein, some state constitutions also still contain anti-blasphemy language for the same reason some have anti-atheism statutes: inertia and tenacious religious bigotry. I posted in 2018 about how such anti-blasphemy artifacts continue to survive today in U.S. state constitutions:

“Whereas no federal statute still exists against blasphemy in America, a number of states still criminalize it, including Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania. But the last person jailed for blasphemy in the U.S. was in 1838, but there have been a number of convictions with fines over the years into the 20th century.”

All the state anti-atheism statutes are undergirded by the same faith bias. Mississippi’s Constitution is representative of others:

“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.”

North Carolina’s reads:

“The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

This bias is reflective of the Christian prejudice that only believers in montheistic deities can be moral, a disturbing bias I listened to on Twitter this week in an old interview with celebrity comedian and game-show host Steve Harvey. Harvey said flatly (if  falsely) that atheists don’t have any underlying “moral barometer.” Of course, we do. Humanistic ethics derive from reality, not supernatural realms, and, truth be told, are not terribly dissimilar from many core Christian ones.

Americans have a long history of antipathy toward atheists. In poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 showed that nearly half of Americans would reject the idea of a family member marrying an atheist, and 53 percent of respondents said they would hesitate to vote for an atheist presidential candidate. Pew found that being an atheist was considered “the least desirable trait a candidate could have — worse than having cheated on a spouse or used marijuana,” the Times reported.

Encouragingly, the pendulum seems to be swinging in the other direction. A recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans today would consider voting for an atheist — but nonbelievers are still very low on the list of preference. The Guardian wrote in an August 2019 article, “‘I prefer non-religious’: why so few US politicians come out as atheists”:

A Gallup poll published in May tested Americans’ willingness to vote for presidential candidates from certain groups. About 96% said they were willing to vote for a candidate who was black, followed by Catholic and Hispanic (95% each), a woman (94%), Jewish (93%), an evangelical Christian (80%), gay or lesbian (76%), under 40 (71%), Muslim (66%) and over 70 (63%). Bottom of the table came atheist (60%), followed by the one thing considered even worse: socialist (47%). Nevertheless, the percentage of Americans willing to vote for an atheist was more than three times the 18% Gallup recorded in its first measure, in 1958.”

Still, the Constitutions of eight states — as far as I was able to glean online — archive the nation’s antiquated and irrational fear on nonbelief.

It’s a paradox.

Todd Stiefel, the chairman and primary funder of the Openly Secular coalition, once summarized the issue:

“If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer. You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we [atheists] different?”

The question answers itself: We aren’t.

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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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