Civil Liberties

Unbelievers Unwelcome

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Today the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty reminded the Arkansas legislature that "the free expression of religious belief, together with what James Madison called 'the full and equal rights of conscience,' should apply to people of all religious traditions—including atheists." It added that "government should no more penalize a person for professing atheism than for professing a belief in Christianity, Buddhism or Islam." You might wonder why this lesson in tolerance was necessary in 21st-century America. It turns out that Arkansas is one of the few states whose constitutions still bar nonbelievers from holding government jobs or testifying in court. According to the Becket Fund, the others are Tennessee and Texas. The Washington Post counts twice as many states in this category, but it does not name them. 

Last week Rep. Richard Carroll (G-North Little Rock) introduced a bill (PDF) that would amend the state constitution to remove the anti-atheist rule, which says, "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court." Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar Maryland ban in 1961, Becket Fund National Litigation Director Eric Rassbach notes, "it is unlikely that these laws will ever be enforced." Still, he says, repealing them "signals to U.S. citizens and to the rest of the world that the freedom and sanctity of conscience—including the right to believe there is no God at all—is a fundamental right for all people."

In 2007 I noted how Mitt Romney (remember him?) tried to get ahead by dissing atheists.