Arkansas Atheists: Even If It’s Unenforceable, the Constitution Still Says We Can’t Run for Office

We know there are a number of states that forbid atheists from running for public office. Those laws are unenforceable, but sometimes, pointing them out is a way to show people what atheists have had to overcome in the past several decades.

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers raised awareness of their own state Constitution’s “No atheists in public office” clause and it’s getting people talking:

The law states that “no person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of the state nor be competent to stand trial.”

“It’s insulting, we realize, and we’ve been told by several people it’s not enforceable and that may be the case but to have your name on the constitution as someone who is not competent to sit in a courtroom or public office, it’s rather insulting,” says LeeWood Thomas, with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers.

We had to dig back into newspaper archives more than 80 years to find a case where that law was enforced.

That same provision says Atheists are not allowed to take the stand in court. In 1928, an Arkansas judge refused to allow a nationally known Atheist, Charles Smith, to testify in his own defense.

One of the highlights is that a Christian conservative admitted that the law was a bad one… but not without questioning their “real” intentions:

“Atheists aren’t discriminated against,” says Jerry Cox, a Christian Conservative who heads up the Family Council. “One slight concern that I might have, is there another agenda at work here other than just getting this old law overturned, and if all they are about it getting the old law removed, I don’t really have any issue with them,” he says.

“I’m not an Atheist but freedom of religion is also freedom of no religion,” Cox says.

Again, the law’s not going to change anytime soon, but it’s a vestigial reminder of what used to be.

On a side note, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is hosting a conference in Little Rock this October — just another way to remind the state that atheists are an integral part of the population.

(Thanks to Anne for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Eric Haas

    There are five states besides Arkansas that ban atheists from office: Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

    • stop2wonder

       North Carolina too.

      • Emily

        and Pennsylvania. 

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Wow, I’m really surprised this is a thing… 

  • Margaret Whitestone

    “One slight concern that I might have, is there another agenda at work here other than just getting this old law overturned…”

    Right, because people working to end discrimination always have an “agenda”.  

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

      It’s because he knows HIS side has an agenda with every blessed thing they do… and they project it on to us.

    • Tom

      So, although the guy agrees it’s terrible to have a law that insists the testimony of an atheist cannot be trusted, he still doesn’t believe anything we say at face value.  Great.

  • Kirk

    It also says we atheists are not competent to stand trial, I think that’s almost a better one to go trump around…

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/CKQEXWUDO4UDPBRXPYVVIUOLFI Matt P

       It would be interesting if an atheist witness to a crime knew about this law and informed the DA that they wouldn’t be able to testify. Not the most ethical way to go about things but it would surely be intriguing.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      I’d be sorely tempted to test that one.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Um, wait, but according to wikipedia  
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arkansas_Constitution#Controversy

        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

        We can stand trial, we just can’t testify.  Presumably in our own defense either.

        • Sindigo

          Sweet. That’s you out of jury service whenever you like.

  • A3Kr0n

    I’m glad someone is talking about it. Matt P. had an interesting point. Maybe this would all come to a head if someone refused to testify, or something because it’s against the law if they’re an atheist.

    • Ken

      It’s not a matter of refusing to testify if you are not allowed by law to testify.  Actually, testifying would be breaking the law, so no guilt attaches however you approach it.  Now, morally, I have an issue, but this is the way the God-fearing people of these states want it, and I’m not going to jail if my testimony is going to be summarily rejected by some loony statute.  This is going to bite them in the ass, and they will try to blame the Atheists for being so contrary.

  • DaveDodo007

    Quite right too, you American atheists are useless, you are still drama queening about being ask out for a coffee in a lift, a fucking year later.  Why would even delusion believers trust you with executive power? Even I as a fellow atheist wouldn’t trust you to run a tap (faucet.) Get real and grow the fuck up and you will not be seen as the pathetic losers you are.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/CKQEXWUDO4UDPBRXPYVVIUOLFI Matt P

      “Why would even delusion believers trust you with executive power?” That’s actually been answered many times over here on this site. Your rant on not trusting ‘fellow atheists’ makes me wonder if you’re an atheist similar to S.E. Cupp.

      • DaveDodo007

         If S E Cupp is an atheist I’ll eat my hat. The fact is believers have been in power and proved their credibility. Given the current drama of the American atheists I don’t think it can be taken as a given.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/CKQEXWUDO4UDPBRXPYVVIUOLFI Matt P

          My first response is to say of course believers have been in power because of laws just like these that made it illegal for atheists to even hold office. What about all of the failures that have come from those same religious politicians?  Simply put, having a religious politician doesn’t automatically correlate to ‘proving their credibility’.

          • DaveDodo007

             People have lived under such executive offices and are familiar with them (believers.) I have seen nothing to show me that American atheists are capable of running a democracy inclusive of all people. Which is the very purpose of an elective government. The adherence to one social issue policy to the decrement of all others shows me they are incapable of executive power.

            • 3lemenope

              The adherence to one social issue policy to the detriment of all others…

              What utter rubbish.

              Obvious troll is pretty damn obvious.

              • DaveDodo007

                 Your refutation of my point put me in my place…Oh wait.

            • http://profile.yahoo.com/CKQEXWUDO4UDPBRXPYVVIUOLFI Matt P

              The fact that you personally have not seen anything to show ‘atheists are capable of running a democracy inclusive of all people’ only is applicable to your viewpoint as I, and I would imagine many others on this site, have seen countless examples to the contrary. I’m also at a loss to your ‘adherence to one social issue policy’ comment. I can only speak for myself but my atheism only means I don’t believe in a god(s) or the supernatural. Whether I believe or not in a god does not necessarily influence my political views.

              • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                Sean Faircloth seems to have been a pretty effective legislator in Maine.  I’m not sure about Pete Stark, but I’m sure the eight or nine closet atheists currently in Congress must be doing something right.

                The fact that we have a narrow focus while commenting on atheist blogs doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we do in life.  I’ve probably done more transportation advocacy in my life than ‘atheism’ advocacy.  And, of course, most of us aren’t running for office.  People who don’t believe in God who are running for office probably aren’t getting involved in elevatorgate.

              • DaveDodo007

                 I can agree with this comment only if you take the American blogophere out of the equation.

            • Ken

              Actually, given the BEHAVIOR of many so-called religious people, I must call into question their claims for being religious.  If it is simply expedient for them to pretend to be religious while doing things like, say, bombing the shit out of foreign countries and lying about taking orders from God, then I call them truly Atheists in hiding.  They no more believe in God than my dog does, and are simply doing what they want, when they want, wrapping it in scriptural doctrine, and the gullible swallow every bit of it.  My problem is with the sheeple who will gobble up whatever crap is given them in the name of God, yet reject simple human decency from anyone not in their elitist clique.  After all, the Colorado shooter could jut as reasonably claim to be acting on orders from God the same way George Bush did — same reasoning, same results, same crimes.  But Bush’s actions dwarf the Colorado incident by many orders of magnitude, and he abused Executive authority to force others to pull the triggers for him and looted billions to pay for it, but who is on trial?

              • DaveDodo007

                 I can’t argue with that logic Ken, well said.

    • Baby_Raptor

      I’d attempt to answer this, but I’d have to force it to make sense first. 

      • DaveDodo007

         I suggest you learn to read before posting on the comment section then.

      • Nunya

         He is ranting about this woman Rebecca Watson who was asked out for coffee in an elevator after giving a presentation at a convention. But he is confusing feminist with atheist I think. And ranting about Americans.

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      The American atheists who are very vocal about elevatorgate (or any other single wedge issue) will find that they would not make for good politicians.  You won’t have to worry about the big names on either side of elevatorgate ever wielding executive power in government.  They would never get elected.  Successful politicians are the ones that don’t stir up controversy and appeal to the greatest number of people.   There are plenty of American atheists who would make good politicians.  They would just have to come across as having correct stances on the issues because those stances are the correct stances to have while only happening to be an atheist…. where their atheism comes across as just some personal trait (like hair-color) and not something that defines everything they do.  Such a person could get elected in America.

      • Ken

        Actually, if you are saying that lying to the voters by pretending to be a believer is a positive trait, then OK.  I see few politicians I would call true Christians — lots more that are expedient Christians who will tell you what you want to hear.  Once in office they simply look for the most money and ride the gravy train as long as they can.  Does anyone truly believe that the Obama-hating Republicans care one whit about America?  Remember, this is the same group that, when they had power,would hold meetings without notifying the Democrats at all, ignored all Democratic suggestions, and hounded Clinton in the press when they knew they had no case and were themselves practicing adulterers and homosexuals.  Now they even vote against their own programs if Obama endorses them — Wheaton college and Romneycare being just  current examples. I am not promoting Democrats here, and would vote for Eisenhower if he were alive, but the current “Liars in the Name of Jesus” scenario is just so painfully self-serving and shameful, that I think we must start to call “True Christian” on those who profess one thing and DO another — including diamond-merchant Pat Robertson and reading-novels-in-church Newt Gingrich.  Put them on the defensive to actually LIVE what they preach, and stop taking their “I’m only human” excuses.  That argument is not good enough for God, so why should we accept it?

      • DaveDodo007

         I agree.

    • Patterrssonn

      Gosh thanks for the advice Dave. Who knew MRA trolls were so full of wisdom.

      • DaveDodo007

         So I’m a MRA just because I disagree with you and what men’s rights I’m I fighting for? Divorce settlements (they seem fair to me.) Custody of children (3,000 years of saying women are homemakers is not going to be overturned any time soon.) Can’t see any other rights I’m missing out on so why don’t you take your Kafkatrapping and shove it.

        • Patterrssonn

          Thanks Dave for umm, not making any sense. Appreciate the effort though.

          • DaveDodo007

             I can’t understand that I’m not a MRA, mmmh. How hard is that?

            • Patterrssonn

              English isnt your frst language, is it.

    • Ibis3

       

      you are still drama queening about being ask out for a coffee in a lift, a fucking year later

      Darwin himself said the eye was too complex to come about through evolution.

      • Ken

        Wow. Darwin said it over a hundred years ago, so it must be Atheist Scripture or something.  You are aware that science has progressed since Darwin, and that the evolutionary development of photo-receptors into functioning eyeballs can be reasonably postulated now (not proved, because scientific theory only accepts working hypotheses until they are dis-proved — it’s a self-correcting mechanism religion could use, too)?  Way to go, quoting science from an era before electricity and global peer-review .  Is there a No-Prize for this kind of scholarship?

        • Ibis3

           Yes, I am aware.

          • DaveDodo007

             I was going to pull you up on this point being a biologist but it seems you where joking.

            • Ibis3

               I wasn’t joking. I couldn’t be more serious. I’m holding up a mirror for you, Dave.

      • CanadianNihilist

        You might want to finish reading the paragraph that follows that bit.

        • Ibis3

          Yeah, you know maybe that’s not what Darwin said at all, but that’s what we keep hearing from the liars for Jesus, isn’t it? Not just one year later, but over 150. It would be nice if people a) got a clue and b) quit waving strawmen around.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Typical christian…Can’t comment about anything without somehow making it about them.

    Of course those evil Atheists don’t just want a discriminatory law removed…It’s *totally* about making a sneak attack at your freedoms. PANIC!

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    The entire constitution is here 
    http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/Summary/ArkansasConstitution1874.pdf

    Some particulars:

     
    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.

    24. Religious liberty.All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can, of right, be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship; or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No human authority can, in any case or manner whatsoever, control or interfere with the right of conscience; and no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment, denomination or mode of worship, above any other.25. Protection of religion.Religion, morality and knowledge being essential to good government, the General Assembly shall enact suitable laws to protect every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship.

    26. Religious tests.No religious test shall ever be required of any person as a qualification to vote or hold office; nor shall any person be rendered incompetent to be a witness on account of his religious belief; but nothing herein shall be construed to dispense with oaths or affirmations

    Interesting that the very first article of the constitution explicitly bans atheists from office.  And of course 24-26 pretty much assume some kind of religious belief.  You can believe in any God in any way that you want, so long as you believe in God.

    Nowhere, however, does it say anything about standing trial. I think the news article is in error saying

    no person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of the state nor be competent to stand trial.

    • Tom

      Doesn’t number 26 directly contradict number 1?  How the hell does being asked “Do you believe in god?” not qualify as a religious test?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    “Atheists aren’t discriminated against,” says Jerry Cox, a Christian Conservative who heads up the Family Council.

    Yeh, an’ them nigrahs ‘aint disrim’nated ‘gainst neethuh, an’ them Muzlims ‘aint got nuthin’ t’complain ’bout, y’hear?

    This is the same man who said that honoring Harvey Milk Day would force students to cross dress and participate in mock same-sex weddings.  http://www.rightwingwatch.org/category/organizations/arkansas-family-council

    On the other hand, this is a surprisingly enlightened thing for him to say:

    “I’m not an Atheist but freedom of religion is also freedom of no religion,” Cox says.

    • Golfie98

      but note he didn’t say freedom from religion – that would be a step too far.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_S7NITA3IH43UDIGHRPCGZSMEPY Minnie

    Of course this law can be changed. Find out how to get it off the books and just do it. Archaic laws have been challenged and revoked many times before. It can’t be that difficult. Like Jerry Cox said, freedom of religion is also freedom of no religion. I really don’t see what is wrong with that statement.

    When this archaic law is still on the books it makes for good press for the atheist cause.  And that is the alternate motive he was talking about.

    So fix it. I doubt anybody is going to say it has to stay on the books. If you do not go about trying to get it removed your argument is invalid.

    • http://reasonintherock.org/ Anne

       Actually, it IS difficult to get this provision changed.

      This isn’t just any law. It’s part of the state constitution. That means that it takes a ballot initiative to remove it. Getting a ballot initiative means collecting the verified signatures of over 70,000 registered Arkansas voters on petitions circulated through all of Arkansas’ 75 counties. The expense and effort of such an undertaking is significant.

      In this election cycle, there have been ballot initiatives sought for medical marijuana, casino gambling, and a couple of other things. They have all failed in the petition drive.

      Then, once the signatures are in place, the title of the ballot initiative can be challenged, and usually is. This means that it has to pass muster with the Arkansas Supreme Court. Most ballot initiatives get killed this way because the court normally says that the title of the measure is confusing, complex, or misleading.

      • Nunya

        If youa re gonna post get your facts straight. Both the medical marijuana and the gambling/casino measure garnered enough signatures to get on the ballot.

  • http://reasonintherock.org/ Anneorsi

    Thanks for posting this, Hemant.

    And everyone – please come to Reason in the Rock and support the movement. Even if you can’t make it, donations are gratefully accepted to help defray costs. (We’re not trying to make money – we only need enough to host our speakers.)

  • kaydenpat

    Didn’t know that there were states that banned atheists from holding public offices.  WOW!

    But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since there are many states which allow gays to be fired for being gays.

    The US still has some evolving to do.

  • Sindigo

    “We know there are a number of states that forbid atheists from running for public office.” 

    WHAT!? SERIOUSLY!? Is this a joke? Is it April 1st already?

    I am genuinely shocked and surprised.


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