Eight states still have provisions in their constitutions that either bar atheists outright from holding public office or require people to believe certain things about God and religion before they can be elected.
These provisions can’t be enforced. They were declared invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1961 ruling in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins. Yet they linger on, a testament to the bigotry of bygone days.
Non-believers argue that if these provisions barred Jews, Catholics or members of just about any other faith from holding office, they would have been removed long ago. It is only because bias against atheists/humanists/freethinkers persists in American society that they survive.
Now a movement is under way to scrub these bans from state constitutions. The New York Times reports that the group Openly Secular is mounting a campaign to make people aware of the bans and have them removed.
Openly Secular’s chairman, Todd Stiefel, told The Times, “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 You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed.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 different?”
Americans United is an allied organization of Openly Secular. We agree with and endorse those aspects of the organization’s work that further the separation of church and state. (Openly Secular undertakes some activities designed to promote non-belief, which we’re not involved in.) We’d love to see these provisions removed from the state constitutions.
It won’t be easy. The process for amending state constitutions varies from state to state. In Maryland, the state where the plaintiff in the Torcaso case resided, state Sen. Jamie Raskin has expressed interest in revamping the state constitution to remove the ban on atheists as well as other antiquated provisions. Raskin told Laurie Goodstein of The Times that it would be necessary to call a constitutional convention to do that. That could not happen until 2020 at the earliest.
A second obstacle is lingering bigotry. Even though these provisions are clearly examples of bias and are outdated, some politicians might still fight for them. The Republican minority whip of the Maryland Senate, Christopher B. Shank, told The Times that he believes the people working to remove the ban on atheists want “an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive.”
I happen to live in Maryland, and I believe Shank is wrong. Ours is a progressive and tolerant state. But consider this: The other states that have these bans are mostly firmly anchored in the Bible Belt: Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. What politician in his or her right mind will go to bat for atheists in Mississippi?
(The final state on the list is Pennsylvania. The language there is most curious. It states that no one shall be disqualified from holding public office – as long as they believe in God and “a future state of rewards and punishments,” that is, heaven and hell. Obviously language like that has the effect of keeping atheists out.)
This project is one for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing. The anti-atheist provisions are vestiges of a bigoted past. It is time for them to go.
P.S. Tennessee’s Constitution also bars “ministers of the Gospel” from holding public office – a provision that was struck down by the Supreme Court in the 1978 case McDaniel v. Paty. In the interest of fair play, that language should be removed as well. However, I must insist that a provision in the Tennessee Constitution barring public office to anyone who has fought a duel be retained.