Atheist Elected to Office Cannot Legally Serve December 8, 2009

Atheist Elected to Office Cannot Legally Serve

Remember Cecil Bothwell? He was an atheist who ran for public office in Asheville, NC. He wanted to become a member of the City Council.

Last month, we learned he won his race and earned one of three open seats.

When I heard there was an update to the story, I figured it had to be something bad

I’m not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he’s an atheist, he’s not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution,” said H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president.

Article 6, section 8 of the state constitution says: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

It’s true — There are several state constitutions which hold such provisions: Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina.

But none of these laws are truly enforceable. They’re all (obviously) unconstitutional.

Edgerton may not even be the bad guy here. He’s just pointing out what the state law says:

“If they go ahead, then the city of Asheville and the board of elections could be liable for a lawsuit,” Edgerton said.

Maybe someone filing a lawsuit would be a good thing. Let someone fight over the law. Bothwell’s side should win the case (and I would think he’d have pro bono help from a group like the ACLU).

Furthermore, a lawsuit like this would expose the open discrimination that still exists against atheists and educate people that atheists can be good public servants for all people.

(Thanks to Brian and Deanna for the link)

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  • Iztok

    As a resident of NC I actually am hoping that someone will bring this issue up to try to prevent Bothwell from serving. It would finally open an opportunity to change NC constitution to remove that horrible clause.

  • muggle

    It’s time for it to be heard. The fact is these states should have stricken these unconstitutional religious tests for office from their constitutions long ago. Time for it to be tried. Sucks for him but he must have had some idea of the problem existing.

  • Herb Silverman was instrumental in striking down the South Carolina law of the same ilk – banning atheists from holding office.

    See his biography at Secular Coalition for America

  • ungullible

    This site discusses similar laws in about 10 different State Constitutions, including NC.

    However, it also says that these are left over relics that are no longer enforceable. It references a 1961 Supreme Court court decision that makes all such statements null and void.

    I suppose such phrases cannot be removed from the Constitutions, just amended or voided by court rulings. The site concludes, “Unfortunately, the clauses retain great symbolic value. Decades or centuries later, they lend legitimacy to the expression of hatred and mistrust towards some religious minorities.”

  • Miko

    If they don’t ‘go ahead,’ they’ll get sued too. It’s just a question of whether they want to be sued in a situation where they/we will win (by having the law declared unconstitutional) or where they will lose (by trying not to seat him).

  • I don’t why I’m so utterly shocked by this, but I am. I think this is the most appalling thing I’ve heard in a very long time – and I’ve heard some pretty appalling things.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “I’m not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he’s an atheist, he’s not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution,” said H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president.

    I’m not saying H.K. Edgerton is not a good American, I’m just saying he knows jack shit about constitutional law.

  • cypressgreen

    Edgerton may not even be the bad guy here. He’s just pointing out what the state law says

    Well, he kind of IS the bad guy here. If it was one of those other obsolete laws saying something like you can’t carry a pig through town on a Sunday or a car driver must stop and honk three times at every intersection, you can be sure he wouldn’t even be bringing it up.

  • Joshua Waugaman

    Of course this law is absurd and unconstitutional. As much as I feel that we live in an overly litigious country, I think this case needs to gain some momentum and get as much coverage as possible. I am a North Carolina resident and I would not be a bit surprised if someone tried to enforce this ridiculous provision.

  • Alien

    … H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president …

    Edgerton – known for his years of promoting “Southern heritage” by standing on streets decked out in a Confederate soldier’s uniform and holding a Confederate flag – maintains that City Council should hold off swearing Bothwell into office until the constitutional question can be resolved.

    I wonder how many other (former) NAACP presidents dress up like Confederate soldiers and hold a Confederate flag. An interesting combination, to say the least. Edgerton has a wiki entry H.K. Edgerton. He also has a website speaking to the Truth of Our Shared Southern Heritage, and it has pix!

    I am relatively confident that this individual truly does not want an atheist in office. At this page, he states that “under God” is the only part of the pledge he does NOT have a problem with. Furthermore, he states the founding fathers were Christians who based the Constitution on the Ten Commandments…

  • The US Constitution clearly states that no religious test should be required for public office. This shouldn’t even be a fight.

  • Well, I have my wallet ready in case contributions are needed for Cecil’s legal defense.

    Bringing up this antiquated part of their constitution is such a crock of…!!

  • TXatheist

    I’m not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he’s an atheist and yet this seems perfectly acceptable to even presume that there is a correlation of any type with being atheist and not being a good man. Gee, of course he’s good because he is an atheist seems logical to me.

  • A point not directly relevant to the validity of the clause in the state constitution, but:

    …if he’s an atheist, he’s not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution…The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God

    So is Bothwell known to be a hard atheist that believes there is no god, or is Edgerton just ignorant and assuming that all atheists “deny the being of Almighty God” and believe there is no god? The most basic definition of an atheist is someone who does not believe in a god, which is different from someone who believes there is no god.

  • Valdyr

    I remember bringing up state constitutional articles like this a long time ago with Christians as evidence that atheists are discriminated against, only to be told that such a provision would of course never be enforced. Huh…

  • It’s great that Bothwell won–in the past some attempts to get rid of these unconstitutional provisions have been thwarted due to lack of standing, which Bothwell now has as a duly-elected City Council member.

  • Alan E.

    Iztok, perhaps you or someone that supports Bothwell and the separation of church and state should try to raise a suit against Bothwell. It’s clearly unconstitutional, will get some great press for atheists, and should finally get that law stricken from the NC Constitution.

  • Wow. Just following some of the links Alien posted above makes me feel dirty. Edgerton seems quite deluded.

    Says Edgerton (among other things):

    [Slaves] were given a new pair of pants and a new pair of shoes every day, and he thinks this white man was cruel! [Black slaves] had the same medical facilities that the white man had… They lived better than most of the free world!”

    I’m thinking Edgerton might not be the go-to guy when it comes to equal rights issues.

    Best of luck to Bothwell! I’ve little doubt he’ll be seated, but hold out hope that the discriminatory parts of the state constitution will be removed as a bonus.

  • Hey all, I’m a North Carolinian and this has come up before. As it turns out, the state Supreme Court overturned this anti-atheist provision back in 1979–it’s just that it can’t be changed in the actual document (a formality at this point) until the next time they convene a constitutional convention.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    “Truth of Our Shared Southern Heritage”

    Holy f*cking sh!t. A black guy holding a confederate flag.

    If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find sasquatch.

  • Baconsbud

    I was under the impression that all the states with this type of wording in their Constitution had already been to the higher courts and they had been deems unconstitutional.

  • Shannon

    Oh, he’s not just pointing it out.

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    This guy remind anyone else of Uncle Ruckus?

  • JSug

    Yeah, Edgerton is a bit of a loon. He was featured on an episode of P&T Bulls#!t. I think it was the one about reparations. He goes out on the streets wearing a Confederate uniform and waving a Confederate flag. And he’s not being ironic. In his defense, he raises some interesting points about Civil War history that most people never learned in school. But underneath it all are the underpinnings of a conspiracy theorist.

  • DemetriusOfPharos

    @Snuggly Buffalo
    Yes, and also “no relation”.

    First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

    Anybody else think that this is incredibly vauge and that Bothwell could simply say he believes in the FSM or IPU and nobody could argue the point?

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    Wow, I just realized that I pasted the completely wrong URL into that link. Any chance of getting that removed and just leaving it as plain text? Too late to edit it.

  • Although the Supreme Court did declare all such state prohibitions unconstitutional, and therefore unenforceable, I have always thought the words should be stricken out of the state constitutions.

    Would the wording still be there if it read, “noone descended of a Jew shall be considered for holding public office” ?
    Of course not.

    I wrote an editorial dealing with the issue of state constitutions discriminating against atheists on my website:

    If you would like to read it, just go to the “Editorials” tab and go all the way to the bottom of the page. You may comment on it on the message board there if you wish. 🙂

  • Pseudonym

    So apart from drawing attention to an archaic and legally struck-down law, this executive summary of this story is really “moronic person is moronic”.

  • Hmmmm

    Can’t you ever be satisfied? You are no longer tortured or burned alive or beheaded for your beliefs. You can get a drivers license and hold a job in many places. You are permitted to marry and reproduce. Can’t you just count your blessings (or whatever atheists count)?

  • alnonymous

    In case anyone would like to see Mr. Bothwell being affirmed in.

  • garthhh

    Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reads “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.”

    Unless I am missing something else, this just says that you can’t be disqualified from holding office on the grounds of your religious beliefs. I suppose this can be interpreted either way, but I don’t see how it would prohibit an atheist from holding office in the state.

    They could have changed it since they revised the constitution, but I’m really not sure.

    The Commonwealth’s constitution is available on the following page:

  • Kumbandit

    It’s very simple, really. The constitution needs a serious revision.

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