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Monday, December 21, 2009

Pledges, Promises, and Religious Tests

A boxed feature in most of our chapters is "Pledges and Promises," driving home the importance of oaths and other binding statements by political figures. Our book also emphasizes the unique status of religion in American public life. A North Carolina controversy illustrates both of these ideas. The Los Angeles Times reports:
When Cecil Bothwell took the oath of office as a city councilman this month, he did not swear to uphold the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions "so help me God." He merely affirmed that he would, without mentioning the Almighty. Nor did the political newcomer place his hand on a Bible. He simply kept it at his side.

Bothwell, you see, is an atheist -- or as he often describes himself, a "post-theist." And that has outraged some in this picturesque mountain resort who say Bothwell violated an obscure clause in the state constitution that disqualifies from elected office "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God."
In Torasco v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), the Supreme Court ruled that a Maryland test oath unconstitutionally invaded "freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from infringement by the States." A footnote added that because the judgment rested on these grounds, it was not necessary to consider the additional contention that the "test oath" provision of Article VI applied to the states as well as to the federal government. Article VI says:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.