A religious test as a legal condition that a person holding certain positions of responsibility, typical public office, must hold (or disavow) a particular religion. They date back to persecution of Catholics in England during the seventeenth century. Religious tests are often used to support the dominant religion in a country and often used to discriminate against atheists.
Article VI of the US Constitution states:
- "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
This is taken to mean that there can be no law requiring an elected official to belong (or not belong) to a particular religion, or to profess belief in a god. Voters may, however, decide whether or not to vote for a candidate, based on that candidate's religious views.
Several states have clauses in their own constitutions requiring a religious test.
1 Article 19, Section 1: "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".
2 Declaration of Rights, Art. 36: "...nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God..."
Declaration of Rights, Art. 37: "That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution."
3 Article 6, Section 8: "The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God. "
4Article 1, Section 4: "No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."
5 Article 6, Section 4: "No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution."
- In 1993, Herb Silverman, professor of math at the College of Charleston, tried to apply as notary public. In the pre-printed application there was an oath he had to sign, which ended with "so help me God". He crossed out the "God". His application was thus turned down.
- Herb contacted the ACLU. They filed a lawsuit against the state of South Carolina. In 1997 the state Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional as it violated both the first and the sixth amendment.
6Article 9, Section 2: "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State. "
7Article 1, Section 4: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being." Article 4, Section 2: "No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being...." Article 6, Section 2: "No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution."
General Laws of Massachusetts, Part IV, Title I. Chapter 272, Section 36: Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.
These laws are generally considered unenforceable. However, the prohibitions against atheist witnesses and jurors may have the unfortunate effect of reversing convictions. Should an atheist witness testify against a defendant in Arkansas, for instance, the defense could argue against the admissibility of the evidence, and if convicted, this issue could be subject to appeal. Similarly, if there is an atheist in the jury pool drawn for the case, the defendant likely has grounds for appeal: If he is convicted with an atheist on the jury, the state has convicted him in violation of its own laws. If an atheist jurist was struck for cause, the defendant's right to a jury of his peers has been abridged.
In a rare case of discrimination for atheism, the communist party in Zhejiang only allows new members who are atheists. Party members are not allowed to openly endorse religion. This is motivated by the desire for political control which is threatened by organised religion, rather than promoting individual liberty.
- "Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a party member "
Most religious tests, including for people to receive university degrees, were repealed in 1828.