“Champion of the First Amendment” Dies

Roy Torcaso

Roy Torcaso, 96, a longtime member and honorary officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, died on June 9 from complications of prostate cancer at an assisted living home in Silver Spring, Md.

When Roy was urged by his Bethesda construction company to become a notary public in 1959, he encountered a Maryland state oath requiring him to profess a belief in the existence of God. Roy, an atheist who could not in good conscience take the oath, was denied the commission.

His subsequent lawsuit was lost in Maryland courts, which maintained Roy had not been compelled to become a notary public. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Roy’s favor in Torcaso v. Watkins in 1961.

Justice Hugo Black, writing for the court, said that neither the 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.”

Roy was born on Nov. 13, 1910, in Enumclaw, Wash., to a family of farmers. According to the Washington Post obituary (June 21, 2007), although his father was Catholic and his mother Protestant, Roy had been a nonbeliever his entire adult life. He served in the army in England during World War II, and as an interpreter during the Korean conflict. Roy worked as a bookkeeper, and had served on both the boards of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.

The Supreme Court in 1989 refused to hear his challenge to Virginia laws favoring ordained ministers, which barred him as a humanist officiator from presiding at weddings. He was a former Washington-area president of the Hemlock Society. He wife, Eileen, died in 2006, and a daughter, Susan Mims, died in 2002. He is survived by his daughter, Linda Bernstein, and son, Bill Torcaso, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Roy is featured in “Champions of the First Amendment,” a half-hour film produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the 1980s, which also interviewed the late Supreme Court victors Vashti McCollum and Ed Schempp.

Watch for future announcements for the release of a DVD version of the out-of-print film.

Freedom From Religion Foundation