Atheists want law removed that bars them from office

Sarah Green remembers feeling like she didn't belong in her own state after discovering that Tennessee's constitution bars people who don't believe in God from holding public office.

"It was one of the things that made me realize how unwelcome it could be for an atheist, especially in the South," Green said. "It pretty much informed my decision to stay closeted, if you will, for almost 15 years."

The 30-year-old Hermitage woman came out as an atheist almost a year ago and is adding her voice to a national push to take provisions that discriminate against the nonreligious off the books. The effort is spearheaded by Openly Secular, which issued a report late last year finding that eight states, including Tennessee, had similar language in their constitutions.

While a U.S. Supreme Court decision gives such provisions few teeth, Openly Secular advocates for their removal because they're demeaning and can be used as political fodder, according to Todd Stiefel, chairman of the organization.

"They basically tell people that they're second-class citizens in their state," Stiefel said. "These are right there in the laws for everybody to read that our government doesn't like you."

Tennessee's state constitution says that, "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."

Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the provisions are old and unconstitutional. The Supreme Court makes it clear that residents cannot be prevented from holding office based on their faith or lack of it, she said.

"Their presence in the constitution is troubling because it is a symbolic form of discrimination," Weinberg said.

The provisions are called religious tests. Openly Secular's report cites the 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision Torcaso v. Watkins, which ruled the U.S. Constitution prohibits states and the federal government from requiring any kind of religious test for eligibility to hold office.

In addition to Tennessee, the Openly Secular report also calls out provisions in the Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas constitutions for banning secular residents from certain civic roles such as serving on a jury, holding office and testifying in court. Pennsylvania's constitution specifically gives protections to those who believe in God.

The discriminatory nature of the language is at the heart of the issue. The mission of Openly Secular, a project by four secular organizations, centers on ending discrimination and increasing the acceptance of the nonreligious by taking a page from the gay rights movement and urging people to be open about their beliefs.

"We need to be treated fairly just like anyone else," Stiefel said. "If you're a student or a young adult reading your state constitution for the first time, there's no asterisk in there saying this is unconstitutional, it just says you're not allowed to hold public office."

Green stumbled across the ban in high school while studying the state constitution. At the same time, Green, who grew up in a family with Southern Baptist beliefs, was coming to the realization that she did not believe in God.

"You feel rejected for something that on a certain level that you cannot help," Green said.

Religious test provisions in the United States date back to the early formation of the country, said James Hudnut-Beumler, an American religious history professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

In England the tests stemmed from fears that someone would turn the reigns of the country over to an ecclesiastical power, Hudnut-Beumler said. After the American Revolution, the U.S. forebearers wanted to ensure that those in public office were truthful, and swearing on the Bible was seen as a layer of affirmation, he said.

"That's where we got the habit from," Hudnut-Beumler said. "It's a Good Housekeeping seal of truthfulness that you were some kind of church member or believer in general Christianity."

Hudnut-Beumler thinks those feelings persist and pointed out that one of the hypothetical scenarios religious and political science professors debate is whether an atheist could be elected president of the U.S.

A 2012 Gallup poll found that Americans are more accepting of candidates from various backgrounds, but would have a harder time supporting atheists. But a majority of Americans say they would still vote for such a candidate. A 2014 Pew Research study found that Americans view atheists more coldly than most of the religious groups the survey asked about, including Jews, Catholics, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons.

"I think the answer right now is not now," Hudnut-Beumler said. "It means there is still a basic sense amongst the group of citizens who are religious that people who are religious are more trustworthy even if it's not your own religion."

The Tennessee constitution even has its own religious test provision: "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."

But the state governing document also lists three disqualifications, including barring those who do not believe in God from office, as well as prohibiting ministers and priests from serving in the state legislature. (The third disqualification deals with duels.)

Weinberg said some members serving in the state legislature are clergy members, which also is technically prohibited in the state constitution. Although both provisions are unconstitutional, removing them means the constitution would need to be amended, which is no small task.

"It's frustrating to see that language there, but you also have to recognize that the process to take the provisions out is very cumbersome and costly," Weinberg said.

Hudnut-Beumler said it can be politically risky for lawmakers to try and remove the provisions.

"Whether you're Democrat or Republican, you don't want conservative Christians to be mad at you for removing religious language from your state constitution or laws," Hudnut-Beumler said. "So they have very little interest in striking down what appears to be God-friendly laws."

Stiefel has no illusions that change would happen in the states any time soon, but Openly Secular will continue to encourage people to lobby their legislators. In Tennessee Green said her focus is to bring together and mobilize the state's nonbelievers so they have enough clout to make an impact on state laws.

Reach Holly Meyer at 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.

Tennessee constitution

1. Article 1, Section 4: 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.

2. Article 9, 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.

3. Article 9, 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.