Editorial: Archaic laws can backfire
If nothing else, the ill-conceived attempt to remove an atheist from the Asheville City Council has accomplished one thing: It has once again highlighted the problem of antiquated state laws that remain on the books.
In most cases, these musty statutes are like trunks of old clothes in the attic. They can sit there for years, even decades, ignored, forgotten and harmless. Then one day somebody starts poking around, shaking out moth-eaten shirts, and the next thing you know a cloud of dust has arisen and people are sneezing their heads off.
That’s pretty much what happened in the case of Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville resident who was elected to the council this year. Bothwell’s platform had nothing to do with atheism, although his views are well-known to Asheville residents. (In addition to serving as a radio host, he’s also the author of “The Prince of War, Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire.”) In fact, he recently has said he doesn’t even label himself an atheist and considers the question of denial or acceptance of the existence of God to be “irrelevant.”
In terms of his qualifications for holding office, that’s pretty much how the U.S. Constitution views it, too ó as irrelevant. It clearly states: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings have held that the U.S. Constitution takes precedence over any state law that would mandate religious tests of any kind for public officials. However, that hasn’t stopped Bothwell’s critics from attempting to have him disqualified because of an N.C. statute dating to 1869 which declares: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
The issue at stake isn’t whether atheists should hold office. People who don’t want atheists in office can express that view at the ballot box ó as can those who are equally uncomfortable with the idea of religious zealots wielding power over public policy. A majority of the voters of Asheville weren’t concerned with Bothwell’s metaphysical views, or at least they weren’t concerned enough to allow them to trump other issues on the table.
Often, state lawmakers say that it simply isn’t worth the bother to dismantle statutory artifacts, even when, as in this case, they’re unenforceable. So long as they remain in the statutory attic, however, someone can always drag out these hoary edicts to harass a political foe or score points in pursuit of some particular agenda. Those kind of nuisance actions can involve a lot of time and expense and bring the state unwanted notoriety, as has happened in the Bothwell incident.
Rather than leave open the possibility of this occurring again, lawmakers should take this opportunity to rid the state constitution of a religious test that has no place in a pluralistic culture and doesn’t have a prayer of standing up in court.