In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban

Dec 8, 2014

Image:  Lexey Swall for The New York Times

By Laurie Goodstein

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 You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed.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 for Americans 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.


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22 comments on “In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban

  • It is a frightening thought that religions will go to the extent of insisting juries are tested for orthodoxy. This is inquisitional justice. One assumes that it is largely ignored because the US does on occasion give the impression that it is a modern state and does not simply trust in prayer to negate threats. What next? Trial by Ordeal?



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  • I think the problem lies in the fact that when one has to fill in
    a form to apply for a position for a public job in the Administration you’re forced to state your religion. Here in Spain you cannot be forced to state your religion for a job in the State Administration as this is unconstitutional. I don’t understand why this is not so in the USA. The problems mentioned in this post would be averted.
    Religion is a private and personal affair and is nobody’s business, except for the different religious or political creeds when they want to employ someone in their temples or organizations.



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  • I’m English, and so not really qualified to comment on this, or impudent in doing so, but although not American, I know full well that this is yet another blatant breach of the American Constitution.

    Consenting adults can believe what ever they like behind closed doors, but, they should not foist their religious beliefs on others publicly, any more than they should their sexual proclivities.

    As always, I pity their offspring.



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  • 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.”

    Why oh why does it always come back to ‘oppressing christians’. This has nothing to do with the christian faith and everything to do with pluralism or, at the very least, non-discrimination which he supposedly supports. He’s taking offence at not being able to discriminate and can’t see beyond that to the offence being caused to those actually being offended by this ridiculous article. How can you possibly reason with an idiot like that?

    The stupid really does burn.



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  • Ardiem Dec 9, 2014 at 10:20 am

    The one-dimensional brain of the “faith-thinker” in its full glory!!

    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.”

    Why not:-
    “I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Jewish/Moslem/Hindu/Shinto faith, and that is a little offensive.”

    How can you possibly reason with an idiot like that?

    Quite!!



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  • I was on a jury a few years back, at The Old Bailey in London. When it came to my turn to swear the oath, I asked to affirm instead of swearing on the Bible. No problem there is an alternative card they give you. A juror along a bit wanted an Old Testament as she was Jewish, – OK they found one. But when the Muslim guy wanted to swear on the Koran, they had to search the building ! Eventually they found the bloody book.

    It almost goes without saying that the defendant was acquitted, – but not for religious reasons, but because the prosecution made a hash of it !

    As for the half-wit Republican whip, others will deal with him better than I can. Somehow that weasel word “offensive” is wearing a wee bit thin in my, usually tolerant, view.



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  • Mr DArcy Dec 9, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    As for the half-wit Republican whip, others will deal with him better than I can. Somehow that weasel word “offensive” is wearing a wee bit thin in my, usually tolerant, view.

    Half-wits taking “offence” at the shock of discovering facts about reality, and expecting others to accommodate for their personal lack of education sheltering their delusions in their backwaters of ignorance, is indeed a bit much!

    It’s as bad as those damned novel railways frightening the horses (and donkeys)!



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  • Sorry but this is simply not true. The 14th amendment made the article 6 of the constitution

    no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any
    Office or public Trust under the United States

    binding to all states so religious requirement clauses in state constitutions are effectively void. There are many state laws that are out-dated and have not been removed because lawmakers are just lazy – also, there is no need as federal laws (and the constitution) supersede any state law that contradicts them.



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  • The problem ,how many non believers are going to go all the way to the Supreme Court to resolve a rights violation. Most Americans have know idea how the US Constitution works. They see their state constitution allows it so it must be good. Look at same sex marriage. They assume sense the voters voted against it and there are laws on the books ,it must be good. As with religion most people think the Constitution only applies to them and how they interpret the laws. These people see “religious freedom” and think that gives them the right to control the government and everyone else. We have the right to gun freedom but that does not give us the right to run down the street shooting everyone. Religion is what is destroying this country. Their spew that this country was founded on religious principals fails badly. There are 613 “God” written laws in the Bible including the two sets of the Ten Commandments. Of those laws all but two ,killing and stealing, violate the US Constitution. This witch hunt politics is getting worse by the day and needs to be stopped



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  • I think the problem lies in the fact that when one has to fill in
    a form to apply for a position for a public job in the Administration you’re forced to state your religion.

    The same applied in Australia back in the distant past when I obtained my first driver’s license. I always filled in that part of the form as “Pedestrian.”

    Telling this to a friend, years later, she started to giggle, then laugh, and finally sobbing laughter. In response to my saying “Come on, it’s not that funny.” She said, between sobs, “Yes it is, I always put down “Theodolite.”

    I can only imagine what future researchers make of this data, since I am sure we were not the only ones.



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  • Someone called up for jury duty in Maryland should refuse, on the the basis that they are atheist, and, in line with the state constitution, may therefore not serve. The state would then have to either compel them to serve, thus contradicting their own rules, or they would have to uphold their own rules, and thus act in contravention of Federal law…



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