An Associated Press article grabbing attention across the country cites Pennsylvania as having provisions in its state law that bans atheists from holding office, including the office of notary public.
Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville City, North Carolina, newly-elected councilman is an avowed atheist. When he was sworn into office on Dec. 7, he used an alternative oath that didn’t require officials to swear on a Bible or refer to God.
Bothwell’s opponents are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in. North Carolina law requires officeholders to believe in God.
The Associated Press article states that “six other states, Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas,” have provisions in their laws barring atheist officeholders.
Yet, to become a notary in Pennsylvania, the state law doesn’t address the issue of atheism and holding public office. Other blog articles on this topic refer to Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which states, “No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”
Despite what is written in other states’ Constitutions regarding religion or the lack of a particular religious belief of any public officeholder, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Court cases have challenged state laws regarding religion. One significant case in 1961 involved an atheist notary public whose case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Roy Torcaso, an atheist, worked for a Maryland construction company as a bookkeeper in 1959. His boss asked him to become a notary public. But the state barred him from becoming a notary because he refused to swear a Maryland state oath professing the existence of God. Torcaso said the issue was not if he believed in a Supreme Being, but “whether the state has a right to inquire into my beliefs.”
Torcaso asked the U.S. Supreme Court to find the Maryland State Constitution in violation of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously in favor of Torcaso. Hugo Black delivered the opinion, writing that state and federal goverments cannot “constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Two months after the ruling, Torcaso became a notary after swearing to uphold the laws of the state and the U.S. Constitution.
Torcaso wasn’t the last atheist to win in court. Atheist Herb Silverman won an eight-year court battle after South Carolina’s Supreme Court granted him the right to be appointed a notary public despite the state’s law banning atheists from holding public office.
However, in Bothwell’s mind, it has more to do with politics than religious beliefs.
“It’s the local political opponents seeking to change the outcome of an election they lost,” said Bothwell in the Assoicated Press article.