Religious discrimination in state constitutions
Quotation, Overview, and the
Constitutions of Arkansas & Maryland
"...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 ["Mahometans" is an outdated term, now considered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]
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:
Most Buddhists, who do not believe in a
Members of the Church
of Satan; they are typically Agnostics.
Most Unitarian Universalists who regard themselves as
Humanists, not Theists.
Some followers of the New Age who do not
believe in the existence of a personal deity.
and Zoroastrians were apparently acceptable, as they
believe in two deities -- twice as many as the minimum that Section 4 requires. Hindus would also
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:
Arkansas 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
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
||Maryland's Bill of Rights: |
"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
"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
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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"U.S. State constitutions and web sites," (except for Alabama) at:
"Google Web Directory: State constitutions," at:
"Arkansas Constitution," Wikipedia, at:
"Constitution of Maryland," at:
Copyright © 2000 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2009-DEC-15
Editor: B.A. Robinson.