7 States Still Prohibit Atheists from Holding Public Office

Tuesday, December 09, 2014
(photo: Getty Images)

Despite a 53-year-old Supreme Court ruling voiding such laws, seven states still say it’s illegal for atheists to hold public office.


 “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,” Todd Stiefel, chairman of Openly Secular, told The New York Times. “You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed.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?”


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that states cannot use a so-called “religious test” to screen politicians running for election. Seven states, however, never repealed their laws listing atheists as persons disqualified from all elected seats of power. So the Openly Secular coalition is pushing legislators to remove the discriminatory language from the law. The seven states that have laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding public office are Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.


Not all legislators back the proposals. Republican Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said while he believed in pluralism, “I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive.”


Pennsylvania has a law stating that no one who believes in God can be kept from office for those beliefs, but it doesn’t have a similar provision applying to atheists.


It’s not as though states haven’t tried to enforce the laws since the high court ruling, either. In 1992, a South Carolina atheist activist was stopped from being a notary public. It took until 1997 for him to be able to assume the position. Opponents tried in 2009 to stop an Asheville, North Carolina, man from taking a seat he’d won on the city council because he was an atheist, but he was allowed to serve.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban (by Laurie Goodstein, New York Times)

There Are States Where You Technically Can’t Hold Public Office If You’re An Atheist (by Hunter Schwarz, Washington Post)

Lawsuit Claims 6 of 10 Commandments Violate U.S. Constitution (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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