State/Church FAQ

Religious Tests for Public Office

Why do some states require a religious test for public office? Isn't that unconstitutional?

The Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that States cannot impose a religious test for public office, in conformity with Art. VI of the U.S. Constitution.

See Torcaso v. Watkins, 81 S. Ct. 1680 (1961). Roy Torcaso was appointed to the office of Notary Public by the Governor of Maryland, but was refused a commission to serve because he would not declare his belief in God. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled the Maryland law unconstitutional. The Court stated, “We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’ Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” Id. at 1683-1684.

Roy Torcaso was a longtime member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, serving as Board Member and Officer for many years. He is featured in the Foundation’s film, “Champions of the First Amendment.”

In 1997, a South Carolina religious test for public office provision was struck down in Silverman v. Campbell, 486 S.E.2d 1 (S.C. 1997). Herb Silverman, an atheist and Foundation Life Member, had applied to become a notary public, but the application was denied because a line had been drawn through the portion of the oath stating “so help me God.” The court held that provisions of state constitution barring persons who deny existence of “Supreme Being” from holding public office violate First Amendment religion clauses and Religious Test Clause of federal constitution.

Eight states still have language requiring a belief in God in order to take public office. However, the Torcaso v. Watkins decision renders the statutes null and void. Please note that Maryland’s and South Carolina’s religious test provisions have been explicitly struck down by federal courts. The states are:

Arkansas: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.” (Constitution, Article 19, Section 1) 

Maryland: “[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God….” (Bill of Rights, Article 37). *Still on the books, but overturned.

Mississippi: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” (Article 14, Section 265)

North Carolina: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office. First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” (Constitution, Article 6, Section 8)

Pennsylvania: “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.” (Declaration of Rights, Article 1, Section 4)

South Carolina: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution. (Constitution, Article 17, Section 4). *Still on the books, but overturned.

Tennessee: “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.” (Bill of Rights, Article 9, Section 2)

Texas: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” (Bill of Rights, Article 1, Section 4)

Written by Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF’s Legal Intern for 2009/2010

Last updated 2/11/10

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