Atheists battle laws still on the books in 7 states banning non-believers from public office
Swearing on Bible (Shutterstock)

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1961, saying states may not maintain a “religious test” for holding public office, seven states still have laws on the books banning atheists and non-believers from serving.

According to the New York Times, people who do not believe in God are ineligible to hold office in Maryland, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Representatives from Openly Secular -- a coalition representing atheists, agnostics, humanists, and nonreligious people -- are currently meeting with legislators in those states, seeking to overturn the outdated and Constitutionally impermissible laws.

According to Openly Secular's chairman, Todd Stiefel, the laws shouldn't be acceptable to anyone.

“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, " Stiefel said. "You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed.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?”

According to Mississippi’s Constitution, “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” In North Carolina the state Constitution reads, “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

Even in Pennsylvania -- which has no specific law banning non-believers -- the Constitution states that no one can be “disqualified” from serving in office on the basis of religion, but with the caveat that office holders should believe in God “and a future state of rewards and punishments,” considered to mean heaven or hell.

Addressing the existence of the laws still on the books,  Ira C. Lupu, an emeritus professor at George Washington University Law School who specializes in church-and-state issues, said, "Of course they shouldn’t be in there. They’re all unconstitutional. They can’t be enforced.”

Although rarely invoked, attempts to use the laws bubble up from time to time.

In 2009,  Cecil Bothwell -- who describes himself as a "post-theist" -- won election to the Asheville City Council in North Carolina, only to have his opponents cite the law while attempting  to deny him his seat. The challenge was eventually dropped.

For groups like Openly Secular, the battle they face is finding politicians with the political will to take on the outdated laws in a country where, according to a Pew Poll, nearly half of Americans would disapprove of a family member marrying an atheist.

Jamie B. Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University and majority whip in the Maryland State Senate, called the laws "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,” Mr. Raskin said. “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.”