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Religious discrimination in state constitutions

Quotation, Overview, and the
Constitutions of Arkansas & Maryland

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Quotation:

bullet"...It is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that Pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?" James Iredell, during the debate on the adoption of the Federal Constitution by the North Carolina Convention. ["Mahometans" is an outdated term, now considered derogatory, referring to Muslims]

Overview:

The Bill of Rights of the Texas Constitution (Article I, Section 4) allowed people to be excluded from holding office on religious grounds. An official could be "excluded from holding office" if she/he does not "acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."

This specifically excluded all Atheists and Agnostics from holding public office. It would also exclude:
bulletMost Buddhists, who do not believe in a personal deity.
bulletMembers of the Church of Satan; they are typically Agnostics.
bulletMost Unitarian Universalists who regard themselves as Humanists, not Theists. 
bulletSome followers of the New Age who do not believe in the existence of a personal deity.

However, Wiccans and Zoroastrians were apparently acceptable, as they believe in two deities -- twice as many as the minimum that Section 4 requires. Hindus would also have been good enough because they generally acknowledge the existence of millions of deities. The constitution does not seem to care about the number, gender, shape, size and other attributes of the gods and/or goddesses that people believe in, as long as they believed that a Supreme Being(s) of some sort exists.

This form of religious intolerance was not limited to Texas. Seven other states (AR, MA, MD, NC, PA, SC and TN) all have similar  exclusionary language included in their Bill of Rights, Declaration of Rights, or in the body of their constitutions.

In a few states whose constitutions include the text of the oath of office, the candidate was required to swear an oath to God. Such an oath would have prevented ethical non-theists from taking office. Of course, non-theists who happen to be non-ethical would have had no problems with such an oath.

However, now that these Constitutions include discriminatory and intolerant language, the states are probably stuck with it. The passages will forever affirm that people who follow some minority religions were considered unreliable second- class citizens of questionable morality -- at least at the time that the state constitutions were written. The clauses could only be removed through constitutional change; this requires at least a majority vote of the citizens of the state. With the present political leadership and religious climate towards non-theists in many of these states, this is simply not going to happen.

Fortunately, a 1961 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court makes all of these bigoted religious statements null and void.

Religious discrimination in state constitutions:

We have highlighted the most important sentences in the following articles and sections:
bulletArkansas Constitution, Article 19 Section 1 of the 1874 constitution:
"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."

Comments: This clause denied human rights only to those who actively deny the existence of a God. This would appear to have granted Agnostics and some Atheists full human rights, while excluding rights from strong Atheists.

bulletMaryland's Bill of Rights:
bulletArticle 36:
"
That as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to Him, all persons are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore, no person ought by any law to be molested in his person or estate, on account of his religious persuasion, or profession, or for his religious practice, unless, under the color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality, or injure others in their natural, civil or religious rights; nor ought any person to be compelled to frequent, or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain, any place of worship, or any ministry; nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore either in this world or in the world to come."

Comments: In this state, a juror or witness might have been considered incompetent as a witness or juror if they did not believe in the existence of God. Although humans worship many Gods, the Article does not specify which one is being referred to; presumably it is the Judeo-Christian deity. Not only must a person have believed in such a deity, but they must apparently have believed in a Heaven and a Hell, and perhaps in Purgatory.

bulletArticle 37:
"That no 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; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution."

Comment: This section permitted the government to limit politicians, government employees, and others to Theists. It is again unclear whether belief in any God is sufficient. Belief in a Goddess, or a non-Judeo-Christian deity may not have been acceptable. The Constitution is ambiguous.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "U.S. State constitutions and web sites," (except for Alabama) at: http://www.constitution.org/
  2. "Google Web Directory: State constitutions," at: http://directory.google.com/
  3. "Arkansas Constitution," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. "Constitution of Maryland," at: http://www.msa.md.gov/

Copyright © 2000 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2009-DEC-15
Editor: B.A. Robinson.

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