Which States Ban Atheists from Holding Public Office?

Looks like the Cecil Bothwell case is getting quite a bit of national attention. Bothwell is the newly-elected Asheville, North Carolina city councilperson… who also happens to be an atheist.

Some of the attention has been good…

One man from Brooklyn, N.Y., sent him a $50 campaign donation. And he’s just sold 19 copies online of his self-published book, “The Prince of War,” a criticism of world-famous evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, who lives in Montreat.

“I usually sell about two a month,” [Bothwell] said.

But most of it focuses on an unpleasant truth: Bothwell and the state of North Carolina will have to figure out how to deal with Article 6, Section 8 of the state constitution which forbids him from taking office:

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

A lawsuit may be filed; Bothwell would likely win, as he should, since there can be no religious test for public office.

Many of these articles talk about the several other states which have similar laws in the books. Specifically, there are seven other states which discriminate against atheists.

How many were you aware of?

Arkansas, Article 19, Section 1:

Atheists disqualified from holding office or testifying as witness.

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.

Pennsylvania, Article I, Section 4:

No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

***Update***: Reader Tim points out:

Note that it doesn’t say atheists can’t serve. It says that believers can’t be disqualified from serving.

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 (PDF):

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.

If you live in one of the 42 more enlightened states, more power to you. But if you live in one of the listed states, there’s a way to combat the bigotry. All we have to do is get more good atheist candidates running for public office. When a few of us get elected, it’ll help turn the tide.

Until then, we’ll keep watching how things go for people like Cecil Bothwell, who seems to have done everything right but is still in (a very small bit of) danger of losing his seat.

(Thanks to everyone for the link!)

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  • Fett101

    I see Tennessee and Pennsylvania go even further and deny office to faiths with no afterlife.

  • http://angryatheist.net ANGRYATHEIST

    Oh my science….

  • http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com Bruce

    Something I’d like to see (after having court challenges swat away these types of bigoted religious tests for office) is a campaign to have the people using these backwards clauses dragged before the Hague. It’s a human rights violation after all, in violation of many conventions.

    If guess the success of such a strategy would depend on the status of the US as a signatory, and expecting jail time for the offenders is out of the question. But I think such a campaign would level much needed criticism against the root problem – not the religious test clauses per se, but the fact that enough people are okay with them to make it an issue.

  • http://www.venture-free.com Venture Free

    For the sake of the First Amendment I am hoping that a lawsuit is filed. For Cecil’s sake I’m not so sure. While he would certainly win the case I doubt it would be a quick thing. In the meantime the resources needed for the court case might necessarily take away from resources that might better be used elsewhere. Which of course would be the real reason for filing the lawsuit anyway. It wouldn’t be a move based on religious conviction, but one based on political maneuvering.

  • http://arkonbey.blogspot.com arkonbey

    Texas’ is the best, though. “You don’t have to take a religious test as long as you’re religious”.

    @ fett101: Actually, as it reads, Pennsylvania’s doesn’t forbid atheists from holding office. It seems to allow theists to hold office.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    An atheist doesn’t have to win an election to bring this to the public attention. Out atheists in each of these states could simply run for office (perhaps against opponents they have no hope of defeating). The publicity around the unconstitutional state constitutions in the lead-up to the elections would be a good thing. Fox News would cover it because it is about the “cultural wars”. Use Fox News to our advantage (for once).

  • Price

    I live in Alabama. I am an Atheist. I work for the government on the county level in the capitol city of Montgomery. I am surprised to see that Alabama is not on the list. Nice.

  • http://www.twitter.com/shocktwist Brittany

    Does Pennsylvania really count that as a “No atheists can hold office” rule? All I’m seeing it say is that no one can be disqualified because of his or her religion.

    I can see how it could be twisted to mean “NO ATHEISTS ALLOWED!!” but without the mention of “MUST BELIEVE IN GOD!!” I don’t see how it fits in with the others.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    arkonbey says: “Pennsylvania’s doesn’t forbid atheists from holding office”

    I agree unless it leaves open the possibility of a religious test for non-religious people. It specifically just forbids a religious test for religious people.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.

    This one is trickier. It doesn’t explicitly state that those failing to believe in the God/heaven/hell paradigm are disqualified from office only that those who do cannot be disqualified on religious grounds.

    All of these laws are utterly unconstitutional. Any federal court in the land could make that ruling. I don’t expect any international meddling is called for.

  • http://claire-chan.livejournal.com Claire Binkley

    Pennsylvania’s law doesn’t forbid Atheism per se, it just says if you in fact claim a religion, you won’t be disqualified from office.

    I think that opens things, implying PA’s largely secular; even if one holds a religion dear, that won’t be held against you.
    Pennsylvania’s excellent living.

  • Chas

    Been curious how many of these clauses are original to the documents. Any of them get added during the anti-commie-atheist 1950’s?

  • Philbert

    Actually, as it reads, Pennsylvania’s doesn’t forbid atheists from holding office. It seems to allow theists to hold office.

    Yes, PA and TN only forbid discrimination against theists – they do not require discrimination against atheists. This is still unconstitutional because it violates equal protection; however it is not expressly forbidding atheists from office like SC is.

  • Ron in Houston

    This whole discussion is mostly irrelevant since the Supreme Court ruled in Torcaso v. Watkins that laws requiring “a belief in the existence of God” in order to hold public office violated the First Amendment.

    The discussion is relevant to show how it appears to be quite acceptable to discriminate against atheists.

  • Joshua W.

    Of course most of us feel that this is a fairly silly discussion and that any legal action would be shot down. I personally feel like any case would be laughed out of court and the language in the decision would be at least as strong as that from the Dover, PA school board case. For that reason I feel like we should all be doing everything that we can to promote this story. It has already managed to get some momentum and the free publicity is wonderful. This is the kind of PR that atheists need and if this goes to trail it could be a landmark moment for the cause.
    (I do get a kick out of the wording for Maryland and Texas. “No religious test will be required except….”. Except the one where you believe pretty much like we do…lol. And “Supreme Being” is pretty vague. Someone could claim that Peyton Manning is a Supreme Being. As for me, Diana Ross is my Supreme Being…;)

  • SteveC

    Maybe he should get a puppy. He could name it, oh, I don’t know, something like, “Almighty.” Probably needs a surname as well, but nothing’s coming to mind, but I’m sure he could come up with something.

    It’s fairly rare that someone would deny the existence of dog.

  • http://themousesnest.blogspot.com Mouse

    I notice that in Arkansas, atheists aren’t considered competent to be witnesses either.

  • http://giguantuan.net Kenneth

    Maybe it’s just my reading of them, but several of them seem to mean that denying the existence of ANY god to be grounds for not holding office. So couldn’t we cherrypick which legislators we want to question about their deeply-held beliefs in Thor?

  • martin

    What is scary are the ones that say no religious test will be used, they just have to believe in a god, ones. How would that fare against the constitution just stating no religious test can be used, considering the amendment of the state constitution is covering that already and just saying, they need to believe in “God”.

    Also, I believe in the existence of many great people that I would classify as supreme beings due to all the good work they do.

  • martin

    I love this line I just read in an article about Bothwell.

    “Conservatives cite a portion of the North Carolina Constitution saying no officeholder shall be sworn in who “denies the being of Almighty God.” Funny, the Iraqi Constitution, if memory serves, has a similar clause. “

  • Nancy

    I think it’s significant that Cecil Bothwell even got enough votes to win. I don’t think it would be possible in my part of NC. There is “a test” in the minds of most voters.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    It’s silly. The Supreme Court has already ruled Maryland’s ban unconstitutional, and the South Carolina one has been ruled unconstitutional by SC’s top court. Can’t say about the others.

    Any lawsuit will be tossed out on a summary judgment citing the supreme court’s decision in the Maryland case (forget the name but it was in 1961).

  • Siamang

    I think we’re going about this in ENTIRELY the wrong way.

    Here’s what this needs: A high-profile, dedicated, state-by-state drive to get these bans stricken from the books.

    YES, they are made moot by Federal Supreme Court precedent. Yes, this would get 5 minutes before a judge declared summary judgment. Yes, it’s a slam dunk for our side.

    That’s not the point. The point is, we need a national dialog on exactly where atheists have come and what we’ve had to deal with, and are still dealing with. That’s what this moment is about. That’s what’s being handed to us on a silver platter. A “good fight” for all those angry ‘new atheists’ that only bigots could object to.

    We need to have a “repeal the atheist bans” state-by-state campaign in the legislatures of each of these offending states. To remove a law that should have been stricken from the books years ago, yet still is an occasion to (as we can see here) rabble-rouse against a fairly elected citizen.

    I GUARAN-DAMN-TEE you that if one of these states had a law still in the constitution about how blacks can’t vote, the NAACP wouldn’t let it slide because it was unenforcable. They (and I) would rightly declare it a blot and a continuing offense, and demand it be removed.

    We should do the same. This issue in North Carolina is a wake-up call. Now is the moment to bring up that these states still have on their books these horrid remnants of cold-war anti-atheist bigotry, and THEY NEED TO GO.

    If ANY of these laws said “a Jew can’t hold office”, (which some did, at one time), they would be a shame and an embarrassment and an ongoing offense.

    This is a “whites only” sign above a drinking fountain, with a guy standing next to it saying “hey, no big deal, we never enforce it.”

  • Siamang

    We need to treat these laws like a “whites only” sign. Rip them down and spit on them.

  • Sora

    just like to say that in Texas that section is ignored due to the fact that the governments realizes the illegality of it. It is a vistigial remnant from 1792 if you look at the constitution. It is not enforced. An agnostic was elected to office in my county a few years ago. also on wikipedia:

    “Section 4 prohibits office holders from the requirements of any religious test, provided they “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being”. The latter requirement, as well as similar provisions in several other state constitutions, appears to violate the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion and the free exercise thereof (which includes the right to not hold a religious belief), as well as the prohibition on any kind of religious test located in Article 6 of the federal constitution. Since it would almost certainly be struck down by the federal courts if challenged, it has not been enforced in modern times.”

    so Texas does not enforce it at all. if we get hung op on laws that are not even enforced from the past we should go back and take the US Constitution and change “men”/”man” to “human beings” instead.

  • http://Thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    I have to say, I don’t think it’s fair to claim these laws are a persecution of us and us only; these laws quite clearly prohibit anyone who is not a monotheist from office, which covers quite a few other demographics than just atheists. While I agree with Siamang that we should make a bigger deal nationally (but how, I don’t know), I think we should find common cause with other non-monotheists–Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, agnostics, etc.

  • viggo the carpathian

    All I have to say is that this cannot stand.

    Regardless of your beliefs, this should be a clear violation of the spirit of separation. This needs to get big and public and loud.

  • Siamang

    (but how, I don’t know)

    Lobbying in each state for a Constitutional amendment.

    If we get hung op on laws that are not even enforced from the past we should go back and take the US Constitution and change “men”/”man” to “human beings” instead.

    The words “men” and “man” aren’t in the US Constitution. The word “person” is used.

  • penn

    Ron in Houston has it right. This whole matter was already decided in Torcaso v. Watkins. Just because some states haven’t removed the clauses doesn’t make them enforceable. South Carolina and Alabama didn’t repeal their anti-miscegenation laws until 1998 and 2000 respectively, but that didn’t they could stop interracial marriages.

  • http://www.twitter.com/shocktwist Brittany

    That’s not the point. The point is, we need a national dialog on exactly where atheists have come and what we’ve had to deal with, and are still dealing with. That’s what this moment is about. That’s what’s being handed to us on a silver platter. A “good fight” for all those angry ‘new atheists’ that only bigots could object to.

    I agree. I think that people should be made aware of the injustice still present in our society.

    I remember in my global politics class in college, we were discussing theocracies, and I brought up how some states still require that someone running for office must believe in a deity, and the professor didn’t even know about it.

    That night, I sent him an e-mail with the information on the states (I only had four at the time), and the next time we had class, he asked me to present my basic research to everyone (and this was a small lecture hall filled with like 150 students, so I was fairly nervous).

    It just surprises me that people don’t see the stupid things going on.

    just like to say that in Texas that section is ignored due to the fact that the governments realizes the illegality of it. It is a vistigial remnant from 1792 if you look at the constitution. It is not enforced.

    Does that make it any better? If it’s not enforced, why not just remove it from the state constitution? Why should it remain there as a reminder of past bigotry against a group of people?

    Does the Texas Constitution still tell whites that they can own slaves as a vestigial remnant?

  • http://goodwolve.blogs.com/moxielife Jacqueline

    Could this remove me from the jury duty rolls – an Arkansan wants to know

  • Vas

    I wholeheartedly agree with Siamang, again. To be honest it’s starting to bug me that I agree with Siamang so often, but what can you do, (at least Siamang doesn’t always agree with me, that’s something) Anyway the only thing I wonder about is the question of standing, who has it? Vistigial remnant or not they are enshrined in state constitutions and are offensive in the extreme. A while back Hemant mentioned, I believe it was 22, national politicians who were closeted atheists and I can’t help but wonder if some of them are from offending states and would thus have standing in a challenge to these constitutionally enshrined discriminatory practices. I call on these politicians one and all to declare themselves and speak out on these horrid provisions of backwards state constitutions. They can’t hide forever and betray our interests while pretending to be theists for their own benefit. We as atheists will never be able to achieve acceptance and legal protection if we hide and behave as if atheism is something to be ashamed of. Who are these politicians and why are they hiding. Hemant you have the answer to this question, give them up, (or does that only hold for gay Catholic priests).

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    Hey – I live in NC….do you think this’ll get me out of Jury Duty?

    As for running for orifice, that would be the fastest way I could think of to make my family go broke. 😀 I’ll leave that to other NC atheists (and besides, I’m Canadian – yes, there is a foreign gov of Cali, but he’s Austrian…no one blames Austria).

    Totally OT but you’re a captive audience so I’m going to tell you anyway:
    Today I was sitting in Panera bread with my daughter. Two tables behind me was a group of people (mostly geri’s) having bible study. It was a glaring reminder of what I can’t stand about the South. In my 14 years of living in NYC I never once saw/overheard something like that. It took every last sinew in my body to hold me back from telling them they may as well have The Classics Tales of Hans Christen Anderson in their hands. But, Panera has good muffins, so I didn’t

  • Rennyrij

    Opportunity missed! –  though perhaps just as well, since you didn’t need a food fight or a hissy-fit followed by a lawsuit – but wouldn’t it have been cool to wait for them to finish and then chime in, “In the name of Geppetto, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, Amen”?

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    (Too bad that bible group didn’t have a sign up – I could have asked mgmt to have them take it down 😉 )

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    I’m in Arkansas, and there was kind of a to do about this a few months ago. My husband (who is a 3L) told me a lawsuit would be a pointless and ridiculous waste of time and money because it violates federal law. He said they don’t have to get rid of it off the books because it doesn’t matter. It would be like if a state decided to re-implement slavery. He said the law means nothing whatsoever because they’ve already ruled on this. What would be case worthy would be if it hadn’t been ruled on already since it violates the Constitution.

    Also, because it is a state law, having a court decision that it is unenforceable (which it already is) won’t do anything to remove the wording from the books. That has to be done through legislature (at least in AR), and it won’t happen. You have to show injury, something that won’t be done because it is unenforceable.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    I should have added, the only thing left to do is remove dead wording from the books. I think it is a good project for someday, but most states are actually pretty busy trying to pass bills that will help improve the quality of life. Am I for it? Yes, indeed. That’s not what I’m trying to say. Just that there are more important things to worry about, something Fox News needs to learn! So no, there is no danger in Cecil losing his seat any more than there is danger that someone will try to buy a slave. You would be surprised what kind of laws are still on the books, even though they are no longer enforced because of other laws that trump them.

  • muggle

    I like Siamung’s idea.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I can’t comment on the accuracy of the link below, but the following link shows “stupid sex laws” on the books (although not at the state constitution level).


    I remember when Michael Dukakis got rid of some old sex laws on the books as governor in Massachusetts, the Republicans raked him over the coals for supposedly supporting all the things that where removed. That is the real reason most of these are still on the books. No-one wants to take the heat for removing them.

  • http://msatheists.org Steve Schlicht

    My view is that these laws do reflect “dead wording” and are basically irrelevant and moot in light of the over-arching power of our United States Constitution.

    That said, look how these legislative anachronisms can still be used against fairly elected citizens to demean, devalue and dehumanize those of us who deny the existence of any of the purported God(s)ess(es) due to a distinct lack of evidence for any of them.

    I think that this incident in North Carolina is proof positive that some atheists have work to do in these states in order to repeal the respective discriminatory directives.

    There may very well be more important socio-political issues regarding human liberty, however, most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Besides, each successful effort builds the foundation for the next.

    These are the days where action, not apathy or the silence of implied consent, is a moral imperative.

    State legislators will always be busy.

    Steve Schlicht
    Biloxi MS

  • Mippi the Dork

    Agreed Steven Schlicht, agreed! 

    Mippi the Dork (Michael Swarts)
    Biloxi, MS

  • Autumnal Harvest


    The words “men” and “man” aren’t in the US Constitution. The word “person” is used.

    U.S. Consitution, 14th Amendment, Clause 2 (emphasis added):

    . . . But when the right to vote . . . is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, . . . the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

  • Armathos

    Excuse me but did you read these things carefully before posting this? Texas, Pennsylvania(which someone corrected) and Maryland do NOT discriminate against non-believers…it merely says that they will not discriminate against believers either. The others however….WTF?! O_o

  • Babbage

    Obviously YOU did not read them carefully. Texas – “No religious test . . . provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
    Maryland – “That no religious test . . . other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God . . .”

  • Doubter5

    Texas:  “provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”

    Maryland:  “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”

    Sounds like they’re discriminating to me.

  • frank

    US Constitution overrules state law.

    In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that federal law prohibits states from requiring any kind of religious test to serve in office when it ruled in favor of a Maryland atheist seeking appointment as a notary public.

  • Tomas

    All this is a moo point because the 14th amendment made the article 6 of the constitution “… no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” binding to all states so religious requirement clauses in state constitutions are effectively void.

  • Mick

    Okay all very nice…anyone fancy making some money from it?

    Someone above suggested that there should be a ‘move’ to repeal all these laws and whatnot… I think theres a huge opportunity to do nothing of the sort.

    I’m not from the US so I can’t obviously do this myself… but here goes.

    An unsuspecting person run for and gains a public office job… they are an atheist and odds are nobody would even notice these laws BUT an atheist.

    After a reasonable time they find another atheist who is NOT a public representative to complain that they are breaking the law and that they should be fired!

    The two of them bring claims against the state for damages. The first because the law is unconstitutional… the second because he didn’t run for public office due to the law prohibiting him…but the other guy was allowed to!

    Both wish of course that the state wins… cos if it does every atheist in the state can claim they were denied the right to run for public office too!… and they all immediately file a law suit! demanding damages… the state of course can only pay up… they can’t really just admit they are wrong by admitting they are wrong… that would result in another round of law suits.

    Either way theres a few bucks a piece for everyone claiming to be an atheist that sues… that might be a lot of people!

  • Ckborror

    Except we haven’t done something so slimy yet…whereas someone else has already done something slimy in not allowing atheists to run for office. Why not remove the immediate slimyness of having an insulting…if unconstitutional law, and worry about the second slimyness later, as it may not come to pass.

  • Chiron8839

    I agree. Scamming the society or the government ennobles no one.

  • Anonymous

    Doctrine of sovereign immunity would generally deny money damages in such a case. Under Ex Parte Young, you could get injunctive relief.

  • virginia shapiro

    can unitarian universalists hold office in Pennsylvania?

  • Brandon_boyd

     I would hope so..

    I’m a Unitarian Universalist here in Amarillo, Texas. Apparently, my being an atheist should keep me from being able to serve my state. 😉

  • Chelsea

    That’s horrible! We have freedom of religion, but we can’t have freedom of irreligion?!

  • OldUncleDave

    So in Arkansas, all you have to do to get out of jury duty is to say you’re an atheist.  I bet that state has a lot of occasional atheists. 

  • Easyhay

    I “came out” in Spearman about 55 years ago. Banished me, but attendance is down.
    I found out that “i couldn’t serve,” even in Wash. D. C., because of the implied consent.
    My opinion is; We can’t make progress, until we get “over God.” Might take some time.
    People need a cruch, and security, i work on the later. See ya’ in Church…

    Mike Skinner

  • Colin Day

    just like to say that in Texas that section is ignored due to the fact
    that the governments realizes the illegality of it. It is a vistigial
    remnant from 1792 if you look at the constitution.

    Texas had a Constitution in 1792?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Anderson/568001109 Eric Anderson

    In defense of TEXAS, as written, belief in Chuck Norris would suffice.

  • bruce boryla

    North Carolina too.  Heck, we were in the news last year when one guy tried to keep an atheist from running from state congress because of that amendment.

    I’m pretty sure SC also bans atheists from testifying in court too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandie.winchester Brandie Lynn Winchester

    Is it bad that I kinda want to move to Arkansas now, I would never have to worry about being forced to go into court and testify, I’ll just say look the law says I’m not competent enough! 😉

  • Acknchip

    It’s a direct violation of article 6 of the US Constitution. If that were me I’d be suing

  • ChiefLaughsAtSheep

    How can this be legal?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mel.jfleming1 Mel JFleming II

    In Aricle 6 of the Constitution, the last paragraph. “there shall be no religious test for office or public trust in the United Sates.”

  • Chris Evans

    Well yeah, “Freedom of Religion” to them means, it’s fine if you follow a religion.. But just theirs. Someone else’s is a no-no, and none at all is just you being a heathen.