Asheville Seeks To Prevent Atheist From Serving On City Council

Ken AshfordConstitution, Godstuff, Local Interest3 Comments

Here I was thinking Asheville was one of the more progressive little big towns of North Carolina, but nope.  Opponents of a man named Cecil Bothwell are seizing on an obscure law to argue he should not be seated as a City Council member today.  The North Carolina Constitution, according to this newspaper report, states that a peson is not qualified for public office if he or she doesn't believe in God, and Mr. Bothwell (opponents claim) does not believe in God (For his part, Bothwell says he more of a "post-theist", but claims it is irrelevant anyway).

I found uit hard to believe that the North Carolina Constitution contains such a requirement, but yes, it's true.  Right there in Article VI, Section 8:

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.

Second, with respect to any office that is filled by election by the people, any person who is not qualified to vote in an election for that office.

Third, any person who has been adjudged guilty of treason or any other felony against this State or the United States, or any person who has been adjudged guilty of a felony in another state that also would be a felony if it had been committed in this State, or any person who has been adjudged guilty of corruption or malpractice in any office, or any person who has been removed by impeachment from any office, and who has not been restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.

Now, Article VI of United States Constitution clearly states that "“no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  And since federal law trumps state law, Cecil Bothwell's opponents don't have a legal leg to stand on. 

In fact, this exact same issue with the same fact pattern went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961.  The state was Maryland and the job title was notary public rather than city councilman, but otherwise, everything else was the same.  The case was Torasco v. Watkins and the court unanimously found that such constitutional provision requiring a belief in God violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution:

There is, and can be, no dispute about the purpose or effect of the Maryland Declaration of Rights requirement before us – it sets up a religious test which was designed to and, if valid, does bar every person who refuses to declare a belief in God from holding a public "office of profit or trust" in Maryland. … 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.

What strikes me about the Asheville controversy is that it is SO clear-cut.  This issue was resolved legally almost 50 years ago.  Seriously, do we have to re-argue slavery, too?

Asheville actually is VERY progressive, but there is a small vocal (and aging) demographic of ultra-conservatives in its citizenry.  The city council is almost ALL progressives; this objection to Mr. Bothwell is just the death cry from a dying breed.  Still, it makes me shake my head in disbelief.