Silverman Overturns Illegal Notary Law (September 1995)

After a three-year lawsuit, South Carolina Foundation member Herb Silverman succeeded in August in overturning his state’s unconstitutional religious test for public office.

“It looks like I may have finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a notary public,” says the pleased professor of math at the College of Charleston.

On August 9, the southeast version of the Wall Street Journal recognized his achievement by placing him in their “winners” column. “It’s a wonderful day when a conservative newspaper like the Wall Street Journal calls atheists winners,” he added.

Fifth Circuit Judge Thomas L. Hughston, Jr., ruled that state laws requiring officeholders to sign oaths affirming the existence of a deity are unconstitutional.

“The state cannot require any religious belief including a call for ‘God’s help’ as a requirement for appointment to office,” wrote Hughston.

Back in 1992, when Prof. Silverman applied to become a notary public, he struck “God” out of the phrase “so help me God” on the application.

Then-Gov. Carroll A. Campbell, Jr., and Secretary of State Jim Miles both rejected the application.

Hughston wrote: “No religious test may be applied in considering this application including that of the Constitution of South Carolina . . . since (its religious requirements) violate the Constitution of the United States.”

The U.S. Constitution, in Article VI, expressly forbids any religious test for public office. The Torcaso v. Watkins Supreme Court ruling, unanimously overturning a similar religious requirement for notary publics in the state of Maryland, was issued in 1961, yet several renegade states refuse to rid their statutes of illegal religious tests.

Prof. Silverman fought another religious test in South Carolina statutes in 1990, challenging the requirement of a religious oath for the Governor’s seat by running for governor himself as an atheist. A judge threw his suit out of court as moot when he did not win.

The judge gave the Governor of the State of South Carolina 30 days to act on Silverman’s application.

The case is Herb Silverman v. Gov. Carroll A. Campbell and Secretary of State Jim Miles, Order 94-CP-40-3594, dated August 2, 1995.

Freedom From Religion Foundation