Supreme Court Affirms No Religious Test for Public Office

On this date in 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in Torcaso v. Watkins, overturning a provision in the Maryland state constitution requiring that "a declaration of belief in the existence of God" be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in the state. Roy Torcaso was asked to become a notary public by his workplace, then discovered there was an unconstitutional religious requirement. The Maryland Court of Appeals held: "The petitioner is not compelled to believe or disbelieve, under threat of punishment or other compulsion. True, unless he makes the declaration of belief he cannot hold public office in Maryland, but he is not compelled to hold office." The high court rejected such rationale, saying it "cannot possibly be an excuse for barring him from office by state-imposed criteria forbidden by the Constitution." Roy had asked the court to find the state constitutional requirement in violation of Art. VI of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." In a footnote, the court noted: "Because we are reversing the judgment on other grounds, we find it unnecessary to consider appellant's contention that this provision applies to state as well as federal offices." Roy Torcaso, as an Establishment Clause victor before the U.S. Supreme Court, is an honorary officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“. . . it was largely to escape religious test oaths and declarations that a great many of the early colonists left Europe and came here hoping to worship in their own way. It soon developed, however, that many of those who had fled to escape religious test oaths turned out to be perfectly willing, when they had the power to do so, to force dissenters from their faith to take test oaths in conformity with the faith. . . .

“There were, however, wise and farseeing men in the Colonies--too many to mention--who spoke out against test oaths and all the philosophy of intolerance behind them. . . .

“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 nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”

—Justice Black for the U.S. Supreme Court, Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, June 19, 1961

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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