No Religious Test for Public Office
Today’s political campaigns, from president on down, often include references to the religion of the candidate and how pious the candidate is. This should not be a political bellwether.
The only mention of religion in the body of the Constitution of the United States is in Article VI, which states:
3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
The founders made it clear: no official religion or government support for any particular religion; no religious test for office; and anyone can practice any religion they want… or none at all. An oath is not required, an affirmation will do. When Senator Sinema was sworn in, her left hand rested on the Constitution, emphasizing that her duty is to the law and the Constitution not a Bible.
No Official Religion: It’s Constitutional
Many of us have forgotten this provision that was written into the Constitution itself. At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, most of the colonies still had religious establishments or religious tests for office. It was unimaginable to many Americans then that non-Protestants — Catholics, Jews, atheists, Muslims and others — could be trusted with public office. But surprisingly it was Charles Pinckney from South Carolina who proposed the provision, though South Carolina had a state religion at that time. This thinking represented the new spirit of religious liberty exemplified in the Enlightenment thinking of Jefferson. It passed with little dissent.
It still took until 1961 for Maryland to abolish the last religious test. Torcaso was appointed to the office of Notary Public by the Governor but was refused the commission because he would not declare his belief in God. He sued and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S. Ct. 1680, 6 L. Ed. 2d 982 (1961).
As the Supreme Court pointed out:
It is true that there is much historical precedent for such laws. Indeed, 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 that faith.
This brought on a host of laws in the New Colonies imposing burdens and disabilities of various kinds upon varied beliefs depending largely upon what group happened to be politically strong enough to legislate in favor of its own beliefs. The effect of all this was the formal or practical ‘establishment’ of particular religious faiths in most of the Colonies, with consequent burdens imposed on the free exercise of the faiths of nonfavored believers.3
The Kind of “Faith” We Need
Still today, we see those who are in a position of power ready and willing to burden those from another faith or no faith, even to the extent of refusing to wear a mask and possibly infecting them with a deadly disease. But the Torcaso court kept to the founding father’s principles and said, “We renew our conviction that we have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.”
That is the kind of “faith” we need.
Until the nomination of Al Smith in 1928, all presidential and vice-presidential candidates nominated by the two parties were Protestants. In 1960, the election of John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, broke the informal political barrier that had long excluded non-Protestants from the presidency.
Churches didn’t just fight against each other: they fought within their own religion. Today, politicians fight to declare who is the most sincerely “born again.” The Deist religious convictions of Thomas Jefferson — based on reason, rather than revelation —were attacked, as was Romney, a Mormon, when he ran for president.
12. Liberty of conscience; appropriations for religious purposes prohibited; religious freedom
Section 12. The liberty of conscience secured by the provisions of this constitution shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state. No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment. No religious qualification shall be required for any public office or employment, nor shall any person be incompetent as a witness or juror in consequence of his opinion on matters of religion, nor be questioned touching his religious belief in any court of justice to affect the weight of his testimony.
The Arizona Constitution protects not only public office holders from any religious test, but also witnesses and jurors. In Kelley v. ADBO, M.D., 2005, the decision was reversed because of prejudicial cross examination about the plaintiff’s belief in Wicca, which the court found was not necessary for any valid purpose in a Mormon community except to be prejudicial.
So Arizona, too, has made it clear that a religious test may not be imposed in the public square to bar anyone from their duties or responsibilities. Unfortunately, our current state leaders honor the Constitution in the breach by posting religious messages on government communication sites and refusing to adhere to health and science requirements in a pandemic.
We need each of you to step up and report such violations so action can be taken.