The election of an atheist, a month ago, to a municipal office in Asheville, North Carolina, has caused a ruckus and may result in a lawsuit, if North Carolinian religionists have any say in the matter. The AP reports, via CBS News (WebCite cached version):

Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government — but he doesn’t believe in God. His political opponents say that’s a sin that makes him unworthy of serving in office, and they’ve got the North Carolina Constitution on their side.

Bothwell’s detractors are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in, even though the state’s antiquated requirement that officeholders believe in God is unenforceable because it violates the U.S. Constitution.

North Carolina’s state constitution retains a provision preventing atheists from taking any office; Article VI section 8, begins:

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

Unfortunately for the Carolinian legions of the Religious Right who are raising hell over this, that provision — while it’s still present in the state Constitution — is unenforcable, in light of U.S. Supreme Court precedents such as Torcaso v. Watkins (1961). No one can prevent Bothwell from taking office. But, armed with this obsolete state-constitutional provision, and a massive case of sanctimonious outrage, the religionists are nevertheless spoiling for a fight:

One foe, H.K. Edgerton, is threatening to file a lawsuit in state court against the city to challenge Bothwell’s appointment.

“My father was a Baptist minister. I’m a Christian man. I have problems with people who don’t believe in God,” said Edgerton, a former local NAACP president and founder of Southern Heritage 411, an organization that promotes the interests of black southerners.

Religionists elsewhere have managed to make the lives of atheist office-holders miserable … even in spite of Torcaso v. Watkins, as the AP went on to explain:

But the federal protections don’t necessarily spare atheist public officials from spending years defending themselves in court. Avowed atheist Herb Silverman won an eight-year court battle in 1997 when South Carolina’s highest court granted him the right to be appointed as a notary despite the state’s law.

I have no doubt that Edgerton and the rest of his Religious Right and Neoconfederate friends have deluded themselves into thinking they can get Torcaso overturned … but that appears unlikely, since it has repeatedly been upheld in the decades since. Unfortunately, delusional people driven by righteous furor are not known for their restraint. I wish Mr Bothwell luck as he faces years of legal challenges to his presence on the Asheville City Council.

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One Response to “N.C. To Atheists: You Can’t Hold Office”
  1. […] or even permissible; not all state laws that relate to religion are enforceable. Take for example a North Carolina state constitutional provision forbidding atheists from holding office. While some North Carolinians have agitated that it be obeyed, it’s not likely any court in […]