TN Constitution among those banning atheists from holding office (it also bans ministers)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Some freedom-from-religion advocates are pressing Maryland and six other states to remove provisions from their state constitutions that prohibit people who don’t believe in God from holding public office.

The other states are Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, according to the Openly Secular coalition, based in Columbus, Ohio. The New York Times reported on the group’s campaign Dec. 6.

Such bans are unenforceable, according to a 1961 Supreme Court decision. The high court ruled unanimously in a Maryland case that states cannot have a “religious test” for public office.

The state provisions should therefore be removed, said Todd Stiefel, chairman of the Openly Secular coalition, based in Columbus, Ohio.

“If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer. You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed,” he told the Times.

Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the ban is among a number of what he called “obsolete provisions that are littering the constitution.” He said those items could best be addressed by a constitutional convention. Marylanders get to vote every 20 years on whether to hold a constitutional convention. The next referendum is set for 2030.

Raskin, who is also a professor of constitutional law at American University, said the provisions are rarely invoked. “It’s unconstitutional, so it’s unenforceable,” he said.

State Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, the Senate’s minority whip, said he believes in pluralism but isn’t convinced any action is needed.

“I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don’t care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive,” Shank told the Times.

Note: Tennessee’s Constitution also bans ministers from serving in the Legislature, though that provision has also been ruled in violation of the U.S. Constitution (The U.S. Supreme Court case, decided in 1978, is known as McDaniel vs. Paty.)

Both provisions are in Article IX, Sections 1 and 2. Here’s the text of both:

Section 1. Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.

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.

It has been observed that the two sections would seem to be in conflict with Article I, Section 4, which reads:

That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this state, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state.