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 You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed.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