It is not often that I can criticize the secular credentials of the American Democracy, as I do those of the Indian Democracy. From the treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen to religion-based allocation of its Plan outlays, religious discrimination is rampant in secular India, almost always under the guise of protecting the rights of chosen minorities. Not so in the United States of America, I thought, despite the intermittent rabble roused by the nation's Christian wing-nuts. That was before I discovered in the state statutes, official discrimination against a minuscule minority infidels like me.
At least eight of the fifty states have explicit proscriptions against those who challenge the existence of a god:
Arkansas State Constitution:
Article 19, Section 1: "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."
Maryland State Constitution:
Declaration of Rights
Art. 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."
Art. 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..."
Mississippi State Constitution:
Article 14, Section 265: "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state."
North Carolina State Constitution:
Article 6, Section 8: "Disqualifications of office. The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God...."
Pennsylvania State Constitution:
Declaration of Rights, Article 1, Section 4: "No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."
South Carolina State Constitution:
Article 17, Section 4: "Person denying existence of Supreme Being not to hold office. No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution."
Tennessee State Constitution:
Article 9, Section 2: "Section 2. No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."
Texas State Constitution:
Bill of Rights, Article 1, Section 4: "RELIGIOUS TESTS: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."
I never had any delusion about holding an elected office not even as a member of the local school board in this overwhelmingly religious country. I must admit that I was tempted to apply for a political appointment in the Obama Administration, but abandoned it after Mr. Obama had to scramble in sack cloth and ashes (pun intended) to recover from his remarks about the "real Americans" clinging to religion when faced with adversity. Nevertheless, I am appalled that those who deny the existence of the non-existent can be constitutionally excluded from public offices, despite their First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.
The landmark judgment in the Torcaso v. Watkins case in 1961 was a victory of sorts for my fellow atheists. The U.S. Supreme Court then held that the First and the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution overrode these religious tests in the state constitutions. Reversing the earlier judgment of the Maryland Court of Appeals upholding the State's requirement of belief in god for public office, J. Black wrote for the unanimous Court:
We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person "to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, 10 and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.
The judgment appears to guarantee that any discrimination against the non-believers by these eight states will be held illegal, even if the relevant articles remained unaltered in their constitutions. That, unfortunately, is small comfort to those who are willing to stand up for what they don't believe in while seeking public office in these states.