In the mid-20th century, Maryland’s governor appointed citizen Roy Torcaso as a notary public, but when Torcaso told the state he would not make a customary declaration of belief in a higher supernatural power at his confirmation ceremony his appointment was revoked.
When the case, Torcaso v. Watkins, was adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961, justices ruled unanimously that Maryland’s effectively religious test for state officers was an unconstitutional violation of the principles of religious freedom and church-state separation.
The offending passage in Maryland’s constitution was then — and still is:
“No religious test ought ever to be required for any office of profit or trust in this state, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.”
Despite the Supreme Court ruling more than half a century ago, eight states in America today still have similar religious tests codified in their constitutions, according to a book review of Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life in the September edition of Church & State, the monthly magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The eight states retaining manifestly unconstitutional religious tests in their constitutions are Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Tennessee’s Constitution goes further than Maryland’s, according to Godless Citizens, a nonfiction work co-authored by Cornell University humanities professors emeritus R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick. Tennessee’s Constitution reads in part:
“No person who denies the Being of God, or of a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”
A scarier, more atavistic politico-religious statement in a contemporary American public document would be hard to find.
The authors of Godless Citizens contend, according to the Church & State review, that “even if these tests can no longer be enforced, their inclusion in some state constitutions remains dangerous. The states in question are sending a message to atheists, telling them that they are out of place, or have no standing, in the eyes of the U.S. government.”Moore and Kramnick’s book tracks the history of these constitutional artifacts, which are antithetical to the intent of the Founding Fathers that a “wall of separation” should exist between government and religion, and the passage of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 prohibiting religious qualifying tests for federal positions.
After Article VI was ratified, seven of the 13 states removed all constitutional tests for particular religious beliefs, but eight states ultimately decided to retain the requirement that officials must at least believe in God. Apparently, they assumed that belief in supernatural beings was somehow not religious. And if the artifacts in eight state constitutions today are an indicator, they still assume this.
Ebb and flow of American religion
Godless Citizens notes that religious influence in American political and cultural life has ebbed and flowed over more than two centuries. A series of American religious revivals known as the “Awakenings” began not long after the founding of the republic and continued into the 20th century. These eruptions of piety tended to have a destabilizing effect on the nation’s politics and culture.
Periodically re-enflamed religious attitudes “leaked into the legal system,” according to Godless Citizens, resulting in such corruptions as state laws prohibiting atheists from taking the witness stand in court. Nonbelievers were precluded because Americans commonly believed “all atheists were anarchists who wanted to destroy the American republic, and so they could not be trusted to give truthful testimony,” according to the review.
By the beginning of the 20th century, such anachronistic laws were generally found unreasonable and repealed, but a few limped on. The religious-test artifacts remaining in U.S. state constitutions today are among the limpers.
The disquieting reality is that, like in past epochs, many Americans still view atheists, falsely, as somehow “dangerous” to our culture.
The book review, by Emily Midyette, concludes:
“The truth is, most American atheists simply want to live their lives in peace. Not only are they not dangerous, but they can make as positive contributions to their communities as those who choose to believe.”
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