More than 50 years after the United States Supreme Court ruled that states could not use a “religious test” for officials, bans on atheists serving in public office remain in many states.
According to the New York Times, “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.”
It may seem surprising that such blatant discrimination based on religious beliefs and positions could remain in key legal documents in the United States. Indeed, Article VI of The Constitution of the United States of a provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This statement was upheld in the most relevant US Supreme Court case, the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, Clerk.
Legal discrimination against atheists remains in a number of states, even if few state governments have tried to utilize the provisions recently. Nonetheless, “a coalition of nonbelievers says it is time to get rid of the atheist bans because they are discriminatory, offensive and unconstitutional,” according to the New York Times.
This move comes partly because of mounting evidence of unofficial discrimination against atheists in the United States. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that The same poll found that 49 percent of Americans would be “unhappy if a member of their immediate family was going to marry someone who does not believe in God.”
The Pew poll breaks down the results by religion of respondents, finding that 55 percent of Catholics and 64 percent of all Protestants, and 77 percent of Evangelical Protestants would be unhappy with an atheist entering their family.
Based on these results, Evangelical Protestants are thus the least likely to accept a family member marrying an atheist.
Students and researchers working on religious intolerance and legal discrimination will be interested in this story. As a historian of the European Wars of Religion, it is curious to see that some of the techniques of official discrimination against “heretics” and atheists that were developed during the sixteenth century continue to be present today.
The text of The Constitution of the United States is available on website of the National Archives of the United States. The Pew Research Center‘s poll is available at its website. The New York Times report is entitled, “In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban.”