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‘Offensive’ atheist bans must go

‘Offensive’ atheist bans must go

Seven US states have articles in their constitutions saying people who do not believe in God are not eligible to hold public office – and  Maryland’s Constitution insists that belief in God is a requirement even for jurors and witnesses.

But now a coalition of non-believers, according to The New York Times, 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 organised, removing the bans is not only a just cause, but a test of their growing movement’s political clout.

Todd Stiefel, above, Chairman 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 You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed.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 for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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 non-believers.

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. This is despite the fact that, more than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not have a “religious test” for public office.

The ruling came after an atheist bookkeeper, Roy Torcaso, 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 in Torcaso’s favour.

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).

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 non-believers 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 non-believers. Among those who have recorded videos are former Representative Barney Frank and Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings.

Now the coalition plans to lobby legislators in the seven states, plus Pennsylvania, to rid the constitutions of the discriminatory language. The process of changing the constitution is different in each state, but the first hurdle will be finding legislators willing to stand up for non-believers.

In Maryland, one state senator has already been hearing from constituents who want the atheist ban removed. Jamie B Raskin, the Democratic majority whip, is also a professor of constitutional law at American University.

In an interview, Mr. Raskin said the constitutional provision was inconsistent with Maryland’s history as a refuge for Catholics fleeing persecution and a haven of religious tolerance. He foresees an attempt to remove the atheist ban as part of a broader overhaul and modernisation of the State Constitution. But the next opportunity for a referendum on whether to hold a constitutional convention in which changes could be made is not until 2020, he said.

Paging through a copy of the State Constitution, he said the atheist ban was only part of the “flotsam and jetsam” that needed to be wiped from the document.

It’s an obsolete but lingering insult to people. In the breathtaking pluralism of American religious and social life, politicians have to pay attention to secularists just the same as everybody else. If a Mormon can run for president and Muslims can demand official school holidays, surely the secularists can ask the states for some basic constitutional manners.

But there may be some resistance from legislators who see the effort to remove the clauses as sensible, but politically and symbolically unpalatable.

Christopher B Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said that 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.

• Photo of Todd Stiefel by David Walter Banks for The New York Times.

28 responses to “‘Offensive’ atheist bans must go”

  1. L.Long says:

    The no mix marriage law in NC was on the books for many years after it was declared unconstitutional but was finally removed around 2000 I think.
    They were FORCED to remove the no gay marriage law.
    Please the atheists are the only ones left!!! We have to be bigoted against someone, our souls ache to mindlessly hate some group!!! Please don’t take this away!!!!
    Secretly hating blacks is so draining on us, we NEED to openly hate someone!!

  2. Broga says:

    What these laws encourage is hypocrisy. How many atheists reach public office by having to lie? Apart from political office we even know that many preachers are atheists and are under stress from having to preach what they do not believe. How do we know? Because they say so under the cloak of anonimity. Dan Barker writes about it.

    Here is the UK the benighted religious mafia in the BBC purloin much of the airwaves on Sundays to preach superstition. As we know they impudently ban atheists from Thought for the Day.

  3. David Anderson says:

    Christopher B Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland Senate, said that 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.”

    Christopher B Shank, Republican politician, ignorant and proud of it.

  4. Paul Cook says:

    The last quote from Shank needs a rewrite in caps, as follows:

    “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 TOO NEAR THE MARK”

  5. barriejohn says:

    Shank & Co’s views are laughable. The Bible instructs Christians NOT to get involved in politics!

    “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:1-7)

    Seems quite clear to me: a Christian prays for and obeys those in power as the “ministers of God”, and that’s all.

  6. Cali Ron says:

    “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.” So Christopher B Shank finds apathy offensive, but being denied the right to hold public office Isn’t? What an asshole. Typical christian hypocrisy, “we’re so persecuted here in predominately christian America”, wah, wah wah, boo hoo hoo! Why would an atheist give a shit about whether the “people of Maryland care about christian faith” anyway. We don’t care, we just want the same rights as everybody else. We don’t hate christians (religion is another thing), hating people for their beliefs is in their wheelhouse, their specialty. I wonder if this a hole has heard of the seperation of church and state?

    @barriejohn
    Interesting that you went with the full biblical quote on that one. Indeed, the new testament is clear on that one. But since when did christians bother to actually follow all the biblical teachings (and rantings and ravings). Choosy christians choose to follow the parts that are convenient or fit the need of the moment.

    I’m looking into openly secular. It’s time to do something about this kind of stupidity and prejudice. I’m done ranting now!

  7. Broga says:

    Ironic, isn’t it, that atheists seem the only group left who can be attacked, denied public office (in the USA) and banned by the BBC with no official redress available.

    The irony is that it is the Christians who howl about being side lined and subject to persecution. The perpetrators of the persecution being militant/aggressive atheists. What atheists have, on the whole, is education, literate ability and a knowledge of the bible. These three qualities being conspicuously lacking in the masses of Christians whose ignorance is essential for the priests to keep them under their malign influence.

  8. Cali Ron says:

    @ Broga.
    Irony indeed! By far, the largest and most organized perpetrators of persecution are them! And for the holidays the howling here has already begun, “they’re taking christ out of xmas” and “destroying the reason for the season”. Christians-fools following fools, like sheep being led to slaughter.

  9. Angela_K says:

    Would you prefer to have a person in public office who believes the preposterous nonsense in the bible such as talking snakes and a dead bloke coming back to life or a person who makes decisions based on reason, logic and evidence. Such a tough question.

  10. Broga says:

    @Cali Ron: I see that another RC priest has just been sentenced to 6 years in the slammer for sex offences. I think the answer to all this would be for the Pope to buy all these allegedly celibate priests sex dolls. This would save the Vatican a lot of money and also prevent much distress to little boys.

    My thanks to Barry Duke for alerting me to the sex doll phenomenon. I now read that many Japanese men fall in love with the dolls which are now very realistic. They not only sleep with them but they have them with them on social occasions. I am not inventing this!

  11. Marky Mark says:

    Cali Ron said:
    “And for the holidays the howling here has already begun, “they’re taking christ out of xmas” and “destroying the reason for the season”.”

    Nothing I’d like to see more than the end of that stupid, consumer based holiday. Why it is celebrated here in the USA over other religious holidays is beyond me, especially since most all consider it a government holiday and demand holiday pay for it.

    Thanksgiving is another one created by the puritans and their belief that the magical man in the clouds gave them a good harvest for the winter season. Stupid religious crap! …But I will take the holiday pay, LOL!

  12. Paul Cook says:

    I find it funny that, like others, someone who doesn’t believe in a sky fairy is not to be trusted at all, but someone that does, can be trusted. It is interesting how simple conditioning (of the minds’ belief system) has debilitated any form of logical, rational human thought in such people, to such an extent that critical concepts can be totally ignored and the most illogical and fantastical be stated without question as ‘honest’ ‘decent’ and one worthy of defence.

  13. Broga says:

    @Paul Cook: The result is that a healthy sceptism, objectivity, a respect of facts, an analytical approach and a rejection of what is incredible are not acceptable. What is acceptable is credulity, gullibility, belief in what is incredible and reverence for the “wisdom” of ancient people who thought the world was the centre of the universe and other similarly bizarre beliefs. An associated belief is that we need do nothing to protect the planet as a divine Being has given it to us to despoil as we choose.

  14. Trevor Blake says:

    My secular friends in the UK who comment here delight in noting the last few theocratic laws in the USA. May I take this opportunity to note England is ruled by a leader who is also the leader of a state religion – a condition found also in Vatican City.

    May we remove both the beams and the motes in each other’s eyes in 2015.

  15. AgentCormac says:

    @Paul Cook

    Completely agree. It is indeed ironic that adults who believe fairytales are true are somehow the ones in public life who most often get to say what’s right, wrong, good, descent and honest. (2,000 years of intimidation and indoctrination may well have something to do with it, of course.)

    However, I do take heart from the way American atheists are, as Barry’s report says, becoming ‘increasingly visible and organised’ and have growing ‘political clout’. Long may it continue. And the more those poor, persecuted christians whine about the way they are being sidelined and ignored, and that their positions of privilege are being eroded, the more I believe we are making some very real inroads.

  16. John the Drunkard says:

    Six of the seven states cited were part of the Confederate States of America. Which DID have direct Christian allusions in its constitution. It would be interesting to track down the origin of these clauses. Did they actually date to before secession?

  17. Cali Ron says:

    I would prefer a winter solstice to xmas. A good party and no guilt over having a good time. In spite of the scripture, it’s the christians who have the motes in their eyes and the atheists who see clearly.
    @Broga
    The sex doll thing was a revelation to me. I like your idea so much I’m considering starting a charity: Sex Dolls for Priests-If you feel the urge to purge your seed, plunge into the dolly and spare the boys from your folly.
    @AgentCormac
    Onward christless soldiers!

  18. AgentCormac says:

    @Cali Ron

    Onward christless soldiers! LMAO!

  19. Paul Cook says:

    Regulars might be intrigued to learn: The reason the Spanish Catholic Church has hardly any paedofile issues is that, secretly, and with much acceptance, priests have been able to, and have, had heterosexual ‘Marital’ relationships. It is alone in this respect.

    The early rcc had many married priests, but a serious paedofile issue, it was only Georgory ( as pope) who instilled this Inhumane imbecilic celibacy issue, which has caused untold inhumanity ever since. All of course covered up or denied by the rcc heirarchy.

  20. Vanity Unfair says:

    To Trevor Blake:
    Quite right: I think this has been pointed out a couple of times in the Freethinker’s history. However, taking away the inherited position and wealth, political influence, voluntary taxation, open-ended contract and religious power most people seem to think that the present incumbent has made a pretty good job of being a ceremonial head of state. Frankly, it’s a bit galling. I might even have voted for her. The next couple of generations don’t look as though they can follow her example but as her mother lived to 101 there might be quite a wait. I still think elections are a better idea, though.
    Which brings me to the point. I’ve probably mentioned before that I am a fan of the USA Constitution, possibly because there’s so much good English law in it but starting with a clean sheet meant that a lot of bad English law could be left out. Prior to its drafting there was much unrest and a very memorable slogan was coined:

    http://www.constitution.org/bcp/vir_res1765.htm
    ” In February, 1768, Samuel Adams had drawn up and issued the Circular Letter, which reported that the Massachusetts General Court had denounced the Townshend Acts in violation of the principle of no taxation without representation, reasserted that the colonies were not represented adequately in the British Parliament, and attacked the Crown’s attempt to make colonial governors and judges independent from the people.”

    Samuel Adams was, as USA readers will know, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence that led to the First American Civil War* (1776-1784) so he has credibility. What would happen if some notable people in the seven affected states refused to pay taxes, insofar as this is possible these days, on the grounds that they have been denied proper representation in their state government?
    Probably the same as would happen here but it might create a lot of adverse publicity for the politicians and bring the cause of disaffection to the notice of the general public. A lot of whom might not think that atheists deserved rights but that sentiment can be turned.

    * We know about civil wars over here. England’s alone lasted from C11 to C18 on and off and that was definitely a civil war.

  21. Cali Ron says:

    @Vanity Unfair.
    Point of fact, no war is ever civil, but freedom from oppression must be fought for and it is usually messy. Much like the current fight for freedom from religious oppression.

    As for Samuel Adams, I can’t say I know his history very well, but he makes a fine lager and a most enjoyable Oktoberfest brew. Slainte, Salud and Cheers!

  22. Tom80 says:

    No one should be denied any position, public or private, because they do not believe in God and neither should they be denied any position because they do believe in God. Seems fair to me.

  23. Broga says:

    @Tom80: I agree. I heard on the BBC World news that some Middle East leaders are now equating atheism with terrorism. Quite a jump, that one. Atheists are those least likely to commit terrorist acts which are often driven by religion.

  24. TheVillageAtheist says:

    Paul Cook “I find it funny that, like others, someone who doesn’t believe in a sky fairy is not to be trusted at all, but someone that does, can be trusted” and others with similar sentiments..

    If you apply for a visa to go to Saudi Arabia, there is a space on the application form asking for your religion. If you write “atheist” or “none” you won’t get a visa, but if you write the name of any actual religion, you will. Seems it doesn’t matter what brand of ridiculous superstition you believe in, as long as you believe in one of them.

    Actually, if you try to get a visa you should think yourself lucky if you are denied. It is not a pleasant country (IMO).

  25. Paul Cook says:

    @The Village Athiest
    I am not surprised at the Saudis. I lived in the Middle East so know what it is like. Fortunately I never went to Saudi. But friends say it was a place to make money – and they drank more there than they did any where else!
    Yes, Saudi as well as other Gulf States, require belief in gawd. It is a capital offence not to.
    No one in their right mind would declare themselves Athiest. I never ever did. I didn’t even speak of this to close friends. It was simply too dangerous. I must admit I was concerned for my family.
    Isn’t that telling.

  26. Canada Dave says:

    From my experience with religious Americans it is simply that they wish to deny non believers the same rights that believers have…..but that idea has a root.
    What I see is a great fear that the mom and apple pie America that they grew up in after WW2 is eroding away in front of them.

    First it was womens liberation and the sexual revolution of the 60’s where women began the process of greater integration onto the work force at the same time pushing some men aside.
    Then came African Hispanic Americans further acceptance into the main body of American life.
    Recent times has seen greater toleration, although not total acceptance,of
    the LGBT community and gay marriage.

    Most of the above centered on how Americans behaved toward one another
    and to a large degree was reluctantly accepted.

    For the vast majority of conservative Americans however things have gone way too far left and as noted above many of them pine for years past when everyone seemed to know their place and if they seemed not to know they were told in no uncertain terms what their place was.

    What they currently fear with the humanist/atheist movement is the ultimate intrusion into there lives…..how they think…parts of American society now imply that their faith based way of life is somehow questionable…..when in the past it was rock solid.

    The emancipation of women, blacks and members of the LGBT community was to a large degree a legislated process……conservative Americans were forced into these changes.

    The last bastion of conservative values is …..how they think…the right to believe as they do ……even if it requires very large doses of cognitive dissonance……they will fiercely fight this non believer intrusion …because it is all they have left.

  27. John Dowdle says:

    We have seen how well the system works in the US with regard to cases where police officers killed unarmed black men in the USA.
    When grand juries are empanelled, charges against police officers are dropped. Public prosecutors offer no decent evidence.
    This explains why the US authorities prefer to restrict membership of their grand juries to people who are irrational religious pseudo-“believers”!
    Rational sceptical free-thinking humanists and atheists are clearly not welcome in such a pseudo-“justice” process.

  28. Peterat says:

    How would an atheist police officer testify in court, while not “under oath”? Obviously a requirment of the job!