by Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor, The University of Chicago
*This piece is cross-posted at Huffington Post
A recent Washington Post article reported that the state constitutions of eight states -- Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas -- expressly prohibit individuals who do not believe in God from holding public office.
The Arkansas constitution, for example, provides that "no person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in... this State," the Mississippi constitution stipulates that "no person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State," the Tennessee constitution states that "no person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in... this state," and so on.
Are such provisions constitutional? The history of such laws goes back to the very founding of our nation, for a central question facing the Framers of our Constitution concerned the appropriate role of religion in government. For more than a thousand years, it had been the norm for Christian societies to have an established religion. At the time of the American Revolution, nine of the 13 colonies still had an established church, and most colonies expressly limited the right to hold public office to members of their established church. Over the next decade, though, Americans increasingly questioned the appropriate role of religion in the affairs of government.
A critical debate occurred in Virginia, where a lengthy struggle culminated in the adoption in 1785 of Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom. The preamble of Jefferson's bill condemned those "legislators and rulers" who have "assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as... true and infallible," and then "endeavored to impose them on others."