A bookkeeper named Roy Torcaso, who happened to be an atheist, refused to declare that he believed in God in order to serve as a notary public in Maryland. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1961 the court ruled unanimously for Mr. Torcaso, saying states could not have a “religious test” for public office.
But 53 years later, Maryland and six other states still have articles in their constitutions saying people who do not believe in God are not eligible to hold public office. Maryland’s Constitution still says belief in God is a requirement even for jurors and witnesses.
Now a coalition of nonbelievers says it is time to get rid of the atheist bans because they are discriminatory, offensive and unconstitutional. The bans are unenforceable dead letters, legal experts say, and state and local governments have rarely invoked them in recent years. But for some secular Americans, who are increasingly visible and organized, removing the bans is not only a just cause, but a test of their growing movement’s political clout.
Todd Stiefel, the chairman and primary funder of the Openly Secular coalition, said: “If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer. You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we different?”
It would be unthinkable for such “naked bigotry” against white people or Presbyterians or Catholics to go unnoticed if state constitutions still contained it, said Rob Boston, director of communications forAmericans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group. “Right now we hear a lot of talk from conservative Christians about their being persecuted and their being forced to accommodate same-sex marriage. But there’s nothing in the state constitutions that targets Christians like these provisions do about nonbelievers,” Mr. Boston said.
The six states besides Maryland with language in their constitutions that prohibits people who do not believe in God from holding office are Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Mississippi’s Constitution says, “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” North Carolina’s says, “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
Pennsylvania’s Constitution contains no prohibition, but does say that no one can be “disqualified” from serving in office on the basis of religion — as long as they believe in God “and a future state of rewards and punishments” (a reference to heaven and hell).
Article VI of the United States Constitution says no “religious test” should ever be required for federal office.
And since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Torcaso case, states have clearly been prohibited from making belief in God a requirement for public office, said Ira C. Lupu, an emeritus professor at George Washington University Law School who specializes in church-and-state issues. Mr. Lupu said of the language in the state constitutions: “Of course they shouldn’t be in there. They’re all unconstitutional. They can’t be enforced.”
But there has been no political will to rescind these articles. “Which politician was going to get up and say, ‘We’re really going to clean this up’?” he said.
The state bans have been invoked rarely since 1992, according to legal experts. In South Carolina that year, Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who is an atheist activist, was denied a position as a notary public. His case went to the South Carolina Supreme Court, and in 1997 he won. In North Carolina, after Cecil Bothwell, a writer, won a seat on the Asheville City Council in 2009, his opponents tried to invoke the State Constitution’s atheist ban to deny him his seat, but they soon backed down.
Organizers with Openly Secular see the bans as evidence of the quiet bigotry and discrimination faced by many atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers. They point to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center this year showing that nearly half of Americans would disapprove if a family member married an atheist.
Pew also found that 53 percent of Americans polled in April said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate they knew was an atheist. Being an atheist was found to be the least desirable trait a candidate could have — worse than having cheated on a spouse or used marijuana.
The Openly Secular coalition, which includes 30 groups and was formed this year, is trying to win greater acceptance for nonbelievers by encouraging them to go public. Taking a page from the gay rights campaign called It Gets Better, the coalition has posted short video testimonies from people who declare that they are happily nonbelievers. Among those who have recorded videos are former Representative Barney Frank and Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings.