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North Carolina Politicians Seek to Unseat Councilman Because He's an Atheist

The North Carolina constitution bars state office to "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God." An Asheville councilman is prepared to put that clause to the test.

While working as a journalist covering municipal government in Asheville, N.C., Cecil Bothwell carefully watched members of the city council and came to a simple conclusion: He could do their job. 

"As a reporter, I covered local government issues from 1993 to 2007 and felt I had a pretty good handle on the important issues here," Bothwell said.

Last year, Bothwell decided to test his thesis. He mustered a corps of grassroots volunteers and launched a campaign for a seat on the city council. Running as an unabashed progressive, Bothwell stressed themes like environmental stewardship and good government. 

It wasn't an easy campaign. During the race, Bothwell's opponents attacked him for a critical book he authored about Billy Graham and assailed his religious beliefs – or more accurately, his lack of them. Bothwell opponents pointed out that in his book, The Prince of War: Billy Graham's Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, he spoke frankly about his own dearth of faith, writing, "I don't believe in supernatural beings of any stripe…."

When Bothwell won anyway, his opponents refused to accept it. They began arguing that Bothwell was ineligible to take office, pointing to a provision in the North Carolina Constitution that bars atheists from holding public office.

The language is indeed there. Article VI, Section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution bars state office to anyone who is ineligible to vote, anyone who has been convicted of treason or any other felony and "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God."

The provision dates to 1868 and is an adaptation of language that appeared in the 1776 version of the North Carolina Constitution. The original wording was actually more restrictive, barring from office any "person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of either the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State." (It also stated that "no clergyman, or preacher of the gospel, of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the senate, house of commons, or council of state, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function.")

Antiquated language barring atheists from public office does exist, but that doesn't mean it's still in force. In fact, it's not. A 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down such "religious tests" for public office. The case, Torcaso v. Watkins, was brought by a Maryland man, Roy Torcaso, who refused to take a religious oath as a condition of becoming a notary public.

Article 37 of the Maryland Constitution holds, "[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God…."

Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals, initially ruled against Torcaso in 1960. The Maryland court pointed out that the common law often excluded atheists as witnesses in court and observed, "[W]e find it difficult to believe that the Supreme Court will hold that a declaration of belief in the existence of God…is discriminatory and invalid."

Elsewhere, the court equated atheism with "the denial of any moral accountability for conduct" and wrote, "The historical record makes it clear that religious toleration, in which this State has taken pride, was never thought to encompass the ungodly."

But if the judges on Maryland's highest court smugly thought their opinion would survive U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny, they were in for a surprise. In a unanimous opinion, the high court ruled one year later that the Maryland provision violates the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.