University Discrimination Against Atheists? September 5, 2010

University Discrimination Against Atheists?

I don’t have a lot of background on this story, but a reader brought it to my attention. Maybe someone with more knowledge on the situation can shed more light on what’s going on here.

In 1976, the Code of Laws of South Carolina were written. Among other things, it discusses the University of South Carolina and how it should be run… Section 59-117-100 is particularly interesting:

President shall not be atheist or infidel.

The board of trustees shall take care that the president of the University shall not be an atheist or infidel.

What the deuce? I thought university were “bastions of secularism”!

Is this still in the books? Is it enforceable? As a state school, it shouldn’t be… right?

Maybe I wouldn’t be surprised if it were unenforceable, yet still in the law.

South Carolina is also the state that forbade an atheist from running for public office — though Secular Coalition for America president Herb Silverman helped change that in 1997 when the state Supreme Court unanimously voted to allow him to become a notary public.

(Thanks to Bhanu for the link!)

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  • As it is a state school, the position of university president would be even more of a position of public trust than a notary public. So that requirement was probably added at the same time as all of the others. I would think that when the state supreme court struck that down that it would apply to the university as well, as such it would be unenforceable.

  • JD

    I thought only Muslims are the only ones that used the word infidel seriously. Infidel is relative to a given religion in question, so somewhere there is an assumed or defined religion in the code, that would probably mean established religion.

    I’d call dead-letter on this. Anyone that tries enforcing it is simply going to lose, and they’re going to spend a lot of money loosing, just to make a worthless point and waste money for both sides.

  • Erp

    Actually Notary Public is not an elected official. The state prohibited any holder of a state office from being a non-theist: “No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”

    Note the rule on the university president is even more expansive as it also prohibits infidels. Depending on one’s definition that could include Muslims, Jews, non-trinitarian Christians, and Hindus as well as atheists. A search shows that it is the only place within South Carolina law (not including the constitution) that either word is used. However it would not stand up in court. Might be an interesting project to look up the debates on that section. Was it debated in 1976; as a rule it dates back at least till 1890.

  • No way this is enforceable. If, instead of “atheist,” it said, “Jew,” or “negro,” we’d see how enforceable it is. This is similar to restrictive covenants in real estate, all of which have long ago been rendered irrelevant by subsequent Federal law.

  • dreamfish

    Couldn’t ‘infidel’ be interpreted as one who doesn’t follow the ‘true faith’? In which case, if we’re talking about Christianity, which sect is the right one?

    Isn’t Catholicism the true faith? Would Unitarians qualify as infidels? The possibilities for in-fighting are endless.

  • Alex

    Again it seems like just a another subtle way to discourage non-believers from participating. What chance do you think a non-believer would have in getting that job if he challenges this provision? How much support do you think he could muster from selection committee members that are probably being held accountable by their respective religious communities?

  • Claudia

    I’m not as surprised about the law being there as I am about it having been written in 1976. Seriously? This isn’t some Civil War era relic, and it’s not even some Red Scare BS like the defiling of the pledge. Someone in 1976 was actually thinking about posts of responsibility in terms of “infidels” and a plurality of lawmakers agreed. WTF?!

  • We (the Pastafarians at USC) talked about this last year and we may do something with it this year… It is pretty ridiculous that it is still on the books. However, it was hidden within the books among really dreary stuff (about land and how to divide that up. Really, really dull stuff) and the way it is worded may be the problem with how it is tackled. It doesn’t define the term infidel.

    It’ll be interesting, whatever way we deal with it.

  • Erp

    Couple of points.

    1. The law dates back to at least 1890, the 1976 revision of the entire State Code probably meant large chunks were brought forward without close examination. Though they did seem to have dropped the rule requiring a chaplain at some point.

    2. Infidel in English/American law seems to have meant non-Christian (infidel countries included Muslim countries but Protestant run countries did not call Catholic countries infidel). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia circa 1910, it explicitly includes Jews and Muslims (though South Carolina circa 1890 is unlikely to have explicitly considered the Catholic point of view). However the term infidel was also used in lists like “Jews, Turks [meaning Muslims], Infidels, and Hereticks” so perhaps Muslims and Jews could have been president of the university. But at a minimum Hemant has always been an infidel, first as a Jain and then as an atheist.

    The best way if you choose to deal with it is to talk to the non-Christian religious groups on campus and campaign for a law removing the section as it is unenforceable and offensive to Jews et al..

  • A Portlander

    Unsurprising. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like nearly every piece of stark mad, infuriating, bite-out-your-own-tongue religiot lunacy I’ve heard of in the last year has come out of the Carolinas.

  • SecularLez

    I think it’s unenforceable because it’s a state-supported institution and pretty much all laws forbidding atheists from holding public office have been struck down.

    I live in Arkansas, unfortunately, and we have that same law on the books but the state can’t enforce it because it’s been struck down.

    A state legislator tried to get the law taken off the books but the legislature didn’t want to officially take it off the books. ::sigh::

  • Judith Bandsma

    I just looked at the application for notary for Charleston County (same place Herb Silverman originally applied). It STILL has ‘so help me god’ as the last part of the oath.

    It was my understanding that this was supposed to be dropped when Herb finally won (after 7 YEARS) his lawsuit.

  • Alex

    This might have to do with what Susan Jacoby talked about in “The Age of American Unreason” which I read recently. She said that in the 1820s The University of South Carolina (then the South Carolina University at Columbia) was one of the top universities in America. It had as its president Thomas Cooper, a Brit who had emigrated due to English right-wing action over the French Revolution. Anyway, he was no friend to religious belief in general and was sent packing, along with every faculty member he hired, for religious heresy in the 1830s. I guess they never forgot that episode.

  • Rollingforest

    If a law is declared unconstitutional, shouldn’t it automatically be removed from the books? What’s the point of having unenforceable unconstitutional laws still on the books? Just to waste paper?

  • Nordog


    I’m sure a lawyer among us can confirm or deny, but it seems to me that if a court rules that part of a law is unconstitutional, then the rest of the law stands, yet everyone knows that certain clauses are moot and to be ignored. The “waste of paper” would involve the re-passage of a given law in its updated version.

    I think economy and the law would have that the bill/act whatever stay in place while everyone ignores the statutes that had be struck down.

    This is speculation on my part. Anyone here know how this works?

  • Luther

    Next we will hear of the grade “A” being banned.

  • muggle

    Actually, 1976 isn’t all that surprising as a lot of this religious reich nonsense started in the late ’70’s.

    I even remember “WKRP in Cincinatti” doing a great episode exposing and taking the Moral Majority (I forget the euphemism they used but the actor who portrayed a Jerry Falwell type not only greatly resembled the pudgy Falwell; he nailed the hypocricy perfectly) to task. I will never forget that episode mostly because it got me worked up. (I’ve hated the Moral Majority from its onset and was thrilled that one of my favorite shows did such a powerful take-down of them.) Carlson, the totally loveable station manager (played by the Maytag repairman Gordon Jump) and a devout, kind-hearted Christian is torn when this Falwell-ese gets on him about playing evil rock and rock etc. He wrestles with his conscience and asks his young employees their opinion.

    The episode ends with him saying to the guy, one of our DJ’s wrote down the lyrics to a song and I wanted to run them by you before playing it on the air. Please, tell me if your organization would allow this song to played over the air. He proceeds to read the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” that Johnny Fever had written down for him. Of course, the monitor of God’s will furiously told him, “No, we couldn’t approve that. Why it’s utter blasphemy!” Carlson disagrees politely and soft-spokenly and the man blusters, “It’s claiming there’s no heaven, no hell! That’s blasphemy!” Carlson calmly replies, “No. It says imagine there’s no heaven,” stressing the word imagine and throws the man out of his office after a short lecture on how he could no longer allow him to censor ideas.

    Too bad there weren’t more real-life Carlsons around whose faith wasn’t threatened by a mere idea and who also had the courage to stand up to bullies like Falwell. But, sigh, then we wouldn’t be where we are today with such nonsense overriding the public arena so vehemently. Sadly, I don’t think that episode would make it to the air waves today. I tried to find it on-line to link here if anyone wanted to watch it and can’t find it.

    Enjoy this alternate fun poking fun of religion.

    Now, back on topic (sorry about that), this just shows why all these archaic laws need to be repealed and removed from the books even if it is a hassle. Not just ones surrounding religion but ones that are just plain outdated.

  • Miko

    Courts don’t vote.

  • law is funny like that. there was a law in this state that was applied, fairly recently even, against “blasphemous swearing.” some guy was in a boat and having problems and started swearing, and some dicknosed local sheriff type actually arrested him under the old statute. it didn’t stand up in court, of course. but the hassle the guy had to go thru was real.

    yes, laws like these need to be repealed. but mostly, they aren’t until they become a court case, because our pols are lazy and stupid and most of them don’t really have a clue about the laws they vote upon (being written mostly by lobbyists and just handed off to reps) let alone the laws that came before their terms. the voters are even more ignorant of “the law.” archaic law study is actually a lot of fun, i’ve seen several pieces about it. ancient or dated laws about not mixing prunes with jam, of how women must not wear pink on sundays, etc. there’s a million oddball statutes out there that wouldn’t pass constitutional muster.

  • The easiest way for the statute to change would be for the legislature to simply vote to alter the language, which I’m sure they could easily do. That or someone with standing can challenge it in court. I agree that legislatures should make it something of a priority to update and/or repeal such archaic statutes.

  • MH

    There’s no way the law would hold up as the federal constitution trumps it.

    BTW if a Jain becomes an atheist are they an infidel squared or a second order infidel?

  • Epistaxis

    If only there were some super-active atheist/humanist/secular/Pastafarian/whatever student group at USC that could challenge this and get themselves some publicity along the way…

  • trixr4kids

    @Epistaxis: “If only there were some super-activeatheist/humanist/secular/Pastafarian/whatever student group at USC that could challenge this and get themselves some publicity along the way…”

    There is. See above; 8th comment.

  • bhanu

    Thanks for bringing to the world’s notice. I personally think there is no place for discriminatory laws like this to exist in either state or federal laws because after the passage of civil rights everyone is equal people just cannot be discriminated like this anymore.

  • Well there goes my next job.

    Does it exclude us women folks too?

  • Hmm “an atheist or infidel”, eh. Within Christianity an infidel is one who was not baptised and does not practice the faith. They may have meant “a non-Christian monotheist” but they foolishly left it open to interpretation. That excludes Anabaptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses who have not yet been baptised, Quakers who don’t get baptised, Muslims and Jews who are non-Christian monotheists as well as atheists. I’m pretty sure that Hindus, Buddhists and Jains would be OK as they aren’t monotheists. The latter would be heathens or pagans in this kind of Christianese.

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