People are still talking about Asheville, North Carolina city councilperson Cecil Bothwell and the recent consciousness-raising of the fact that several states technically forbid atheists from holding public office.
In Bothwell’s case, the state constitution says his atheism prevents him from holding his seat, but the U.S. Constitution says otherwise. (The U.S. Constitution trumps the state constitution, says the law.)
“Frankly, this is one of the easiest cases I’ve ever seen,” said Arnold Loewy, George R. Killam Jr. Chair of Criminal Law at Texas Tech, who teaches a course of the First Amendment. “It’s crystal clear that the North Carolina and Texas law is unconstitutional.”
Rewriting the law would take time away from lawmakers who would rather deal with current issues, said Dan Rodriguez, a University of Texas professor of law who specializes in state law.
“Often it’s just not worth the effort or the energy,” Rodriguez said. He said with laws like this, state leaders “just have to hold their breath and hope no one notices.”
Bothwell is taking all this attention in stride:
As for Bothwell, he says his atheism is irrelevant to his duties as a councilman.
“I don’t find any need in my day-to-day life for God to explain things to me,” he said. “When religion gets tangled up with government, it always causes problems.”
And while his fellow council members are “bemused” by the whole affair, Bothwell said, he’s not worried about being forced from office. He said the controversy was manufactured by political opponents “who don’t want to see a progressive on the council.”
Journalists should be taking advantage of this situation — it’s not often we get a chance to talk about how many states forbid atheists from holding public office.
It’d be nice to have some more soundbytes we could use against elected officials in the future to highlight their bigotry.
Let’s get religious leaders on the record — politicians, too. We need to know what they say about these laws. Do they think they’re ridiculous (as they should) or do they argue that atheists should indeed be forbidden from holding office?
Let’s make the general public aware of this injustice, even if it is unenforceable.
Soon, this controversy will die away and Bothwell will go on with his work as usual. If that happens without us making some noise over this story, we’d be missing out on a tremendous opportunity.