South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and a state senator sparred this week over a Haley appointee’s alleged atheism, and it was quite a spat.
In a Facebook post, Haley accused State Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) of spreading the “lie” that Lillian Koller, who heads the state’s Department of Social Services, is an atheist.
Shealy didn’t exactly respond well. On her own Facebook page, she expressed anger over the governor’s accusation and asserted that she’d asked the governor’s staff months ago to confirm or deny rumors about Koller’s atheism. Staff informed her that Koller is actually Jewish.
That news clearly came as a relief.
“I care about the children of S.C. and I don't give a flying flip what the Director is...,” Shealy wrote. “Well that is not true either, I would worry if she were atheist but I was told she wasn't so why would they bring that back up??”
And there’s the problem.
Koller’s career is on the line as lawmakers investigate her department in the wake of several high-profile child deaths; the Haley-Shealy spat began after Haley publicly praised Koller’s work. If Shealy had restricted her criticism to Koller’s job performance, there would be no issue. In fact, that’s well within the scope of a state legislator’s job.
Instead, Shealy took things a step further by stating that she would “worry” if Koller were actually an atheist. It’s inappropriate that she even went to the governor’s staff to request information about Koller’s personal beliefs. That reflects the idea that somehow, atheism would negatively impact Koller’s ability to her job.
In a statement to Buzzfeed, Shealy tried to redirect the controversy by knocking Haley. She reiterated that she’d dropped her inquiries over Koller’s beliefs upon hearing she identified as Jewish, and called the governor’s accusations “immature and childish.” But the implication remains that she’d have pursued the matter if she’d been dissatisfied with the answer she received.
And evidently Shealy still believes that would be the case, despite her acknowledgement that Koller doesn’t actually identify as an atheist.
There’s also an element of hypocrisy to consider. Shealy’s Facebook posts repeatedly express a strong Christian faith. And in her original response to the governor, she ‘liked’ a comment from a constituent encouraging her to “keep doing what God leads you to do.”
She’s certainly entitled to express her faith, but she’s not entitled to treat it as a test for public office. As an elected official, she’s charged with ensuring that the government remains religiously neutral. Her reaction to the Koller controversy raises questions about her own job performance.
And in the process, she’s come into conflict with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which reads in part, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
It’s clear: a person’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should not qualify them or disqualify them from holding public office. Anything else inevitably privileges one belief system over another, which seriously erodes the separation of church and state.
That’s unacceptable. Shealy might be legitimately concerned over Koller’s job performance, but legally, she has no right to disregard the First Amendment in the process of criticizing Koller’s performance.
Whatever the truth about Koller, it’s obvious that Shealy could do with some remedial training — on the Constitution.