Eight U.S. state constitutions still explicitly bar atheists from holding public office. While their inclusion in the documents may be surprising, these bans on non-theists have not been actively enforced for decades.
The states in question are: Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
Each, to varying degrees, have constitutional texts that proclaim that nonbelievers are simply not welcome in the political sphere.
Consider the Arkansas constitution, which was adopted in 1874 and reads, in part, “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”
And the Mississippi constitution, adopted in 1890, has similar language: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State.”
The Tennessee constitution, though, offers up a twist concerning this paradigm. Not only does it mention atheists and those who deny “a future state of rewards and punishment” as being ineligible for elected office, but it also bans pastors and ministers.
“Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature,” it reads. “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”
But, again, while these bans are on the books, they stopped being enforced after the Torcaso v. Watkins Supreme Court battle in 1961, as the Washington Post reported.
The case centered on atheist Roy Torcaso, who was denied an appointment to be notary public due to his non-belief. After he sued, the Supreme Court ruled that a religious test violated his religious freedom, effectively rendering bans on atheists serving in public office unconstitutional.
You can read more about the debate and all eight constitutional bans here.
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