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By Jeff Cercone November 8, 2021

7 states ban atheists from public office, but Supreme Court ruling make those bans unenforceable

If Your Time is short

  • Seven states have explicit bans in their state constitutions on atheists holding public office

  • In an eighth state, Pennsylvania, the constitutional language is more ambiguous.

  • Regardless, the bans are likely unenforceable and have been rarely invoked since a 1961 Supreme Court ruling.

It’s pretty rare to find an openly atheist politician in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, there is only one current member of Congress, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who was listed as unaffiliated with a religion.

Atheists are certainly free to run for Congress, but a recent social media post said they "are prohibited from holding office in 8 states." The states highlighted in an accompanying U.S. map are Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. 

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The U.S. Constitution states in Article 6 that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

And yet seven of the states mentioned in the post have language in their constitutions explicitly prohibiting atheists from holding office. Mississippi’s constitution, for example, states that "No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state." In Pennsylvania, the eighth state noted in the post, the rule is not as clear cut.

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And the post leaves out some important context: The bans are unenforceable because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In 1961, the Supreme Court ruled in Torcaso v. Watkins that a person could not be denied the office of notary public for not being a believer because it "unconstitutionally invades his freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from infringement by the States."

Since that ruling, those state bans have been rarely invoked, legal experts told The New York Times in 2014. The story cited cases in South Carolina and North Carolina, in which parties seeking to enforce the ban lost in court. The group American Atheists said in 2014 that the issue also came up in a Texas city council race.

In Pennsylvania, there is no prohibition on atheists running for office in the state constitution, which says, "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." A Washington Post story counts the Keystone State as one of eight states with restrictions on atheists holding office. But it notes that Pennsylvania differs from the other seven states in that its rule is that believers can’t be disqualified from office but says nothing about atheists.

While seven states still have clear language in their constitutions banning atheists from holding public office, Pennsylvania’s constitution isn’t as clear cut. Regardless, the bans are likely unenforceable and rarely attempted since a 1961 Supreme Court ruling on the matter.

The statement in the Instagram post is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

 

Our Sources

Pew Research Center, "Faith on the Hill, The religious composition of the 117th Congress," Jan. 4, 2021

U.S. Supreme Court ruling, "Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)"  

Congress.gov, "Constitution of the United States"

The New York Times, "In seven states, atheists push to end largely forgotten ban," Dec. 6, 2014

American Atheists, "Is it legal to prohibit atheists from holding public office?"

The Washington Post, "There are states where you technically can’t hold public office if you’re an atheist," July 8, 2014

Arkansas Constitution, "Article 19, section 1"

Maryland Constitution, "Article 37"

Mississippi Constitution, "Article 14, section 265"

North Carolina constitution, "Article 6, section 8"

Pennsylvania Constitution, "Article 1, section 4"

South Carolina Constitution, "Article 17, section 4"

Tennessee Constitution, "Article 9, section 2

Texas Constitution, "Article 1, section 4"

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7 states ban atheists from public office, but Supreme Court ruling make those bans unenforceable

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