In God We Trust? Can an Atheist Hold Office in N.C?
Much hot air and blog space has been devoted to the quaint story of one man who likes to call himself a "post-theist" and whether or not he can hold elected office in the great state of North Carolina -- readers, here's a bit more. In its infinite wisdom, the Tar Heel State has decided that its citizens may exercise their freedom of religion, but those who do not believe in God cannot hold office. The text of the Constitution of North Carolina reads as follows:
Sec. 8. Disqualifications for office.
The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
As a colleague asked, "Is it just me, or does that sound like it was written by Mel Brooks?"
Unfortunately for the writers of the state constitution, who ever they may have been, much wrath and excitement has been stirred up by the presence of one Cecil Bothwell, professed atheist... pardon, professed post-theist, on the Asheville City Council. And yes, the inevitable lawsuit has been threatened, ironically by one who should be a bit more sensitive to such a situation. Former NAACP branch President, H.K. Edgerton, is threatening to sue over Bothwell's presence on the council.
All huffing(ton) and puffing aside, the issue is simply a non-starter. The supreme law of the land, the United State Constitution, Art. VI, says this:
"...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... 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."
Moreover, in case the Constitution leaves something to be desired, the United States Supreme Court, in the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, upheld this notion that federal law prohibits states from requiring any kind of religious test to serve in office. In that case, the Court ruled in favor the right to hold office for a Maryland atheist seeking appointment to the dangerously influential post of notary public.
In the final analysis, this is what is missed in the hoopla of swearing in's and lawsuit threats. Our true national religion might be summed up by this quote attributed (by most) to Voltaire, a great influence on the Founding Fathers, "I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Put that in your state constitution, why don't you.
- Asheville councilman atheism debate goes viral: Cecil Bothwell gets wide audience (Asheville Citizen-Times)
- North Carolina Constitution, Art. VI (NCDR.gov)
- U.S. Supreme Court Opinion, Torasco v. Watkins (1961) (FindLaw)
- Federal Laws Against Religious Discrimination (FindLaw)
- U.S. Constitution On Line, Art. VI (FindLaw)
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