Persistently Wrong: The Religious Right Must Accept Its Losses

By Lynn, Barry W. | Church & State, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Persistently Wrong: The Religious Right Must Accept Its Losses


Lynn, Barry W., Church & State


Persistence can be a good thing. It's important to healing your body after a serious injury, and it's crucial if you want to train to run a marathon.

But sometimes persistence is just foolish. When courts have decided certain matters definitively, for example, continuing to pursue them can be a short-sighted and expensive mistake.

Two stories in the news recently reminded me of how groups and individuals who oppose separation of church and state continue to pursue goals they will never reach. In doing so, they don't just frustrate themselves; they have the potential to squander scarce taxpayer dollars.

First, in Ashville, N.C., some members of the community are trying to deny Cecil Bothwell the fight to take a seat he was duly elected to during a city council race.

Bothwell is an atheist, and his opponents have cited a provision of the North Carolina Constitution that denies public office to anyone "who shall deny the being of Almighty God."

A Bothwell opponent, H.K. Edgerton, is threatening to file a lawsuit.

Edgerton hasn't attempted to hide his bigotry. He told the Associated Press, "My father was a Baptist minister. I'm a Christian man. I have problems with people who don't believe in God."

It's a shame Edgerton has a "problem" with atheists, but that doesn't mean he has a legal case. In fact, he has none. The Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that state constitutional provisions like this limiting office to Christians or certain types of believers are unconstitutional.

That case, Torcaso v. Watkins, dealt with a Maryland man who wanted to be a notary public but refused to swear an oath containing a reference to God. The case reached the Supreme Court, where the decision wasn't even close. Indeed, it was unanimous.

Six states--North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee--still retain these discriminatory provisions in their constitutions. But they are dead letters and cannot be enforced. (Pennsylvania's provision is especially strange, requiting potential office-holders to profess belief in a "future state of rewards and punishments." This language is so strict it would bar Unitarians, many Jews and even some Christians from office.)

Any attempt by the government to revive these provisions in North Carolina or anywhere else means a protracted legal battle that will cost some astronomical amount. And we know what the outcome will be. There are better ways to spend public funds.

Across the country in California, a woman named Merry Hyatt (yes, Merry) is angry that some public schools don't include religious Christmas carols in their winter pageants. …

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