By TOM ARCARO and ANTHONY HATCHER
"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
-- "Notes on the State of Virginia," by Thomas Jefferson, 1781
In the booming mountain town of Asheville, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell may have to step down. His crime?
Serving the public while being an atheist.
There are six states with constitutions that hold that non-believers --atheists -- are not eligible to hold public office. These include Texas, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina.
North Carolina's constitution states, "The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God ... ." A 1961 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Torcaso v. Watkins) effectively nullifies these state provisions, making them only a technical obstacle for atheists in those states to legally hold office.
That Supreme Court ruling is now being tested. Councilman Bothwell, who made no secret of his atheism when he was elected in November 2009, now faces court threats to bar him from serving. And his critics are not all white conservatives, as a story in the Asheville Citizen-Times noted:
"I'm not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he's an atheist, he's not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution," said H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president.
If a court case should go forward and rise to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no guarantee, given the conservative tendencies of the current majority, that Bothwell could remain both an atheist and a city councilman.
Would the Court overturn a 50-year-old precedent prohibiting states and the federal government from requiring any kind of religious litmus test for public office? It may sound improbable, but given the Court's recent 5-4 decision (in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), which overturned a century of law, effectively granting corporations the same free-speech rights as individuals, some non-believers are worried.
How do people across North Carolina feel about a ban on atheists holding office? A recent Elon University poll found that a majority of those polled -- 65 percent -- oppose a requirement that people must believe in God in order to hold elected office.
On the other hand, that means more than a third said a belief in God is necessary to carry out the duties of public office.
Such religious attitudes in the public arena aren't new. In 2007, the First Amendment Center found that two-thirds of people polled agreed with the statement that, "the nation's founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation." More than half said they believed the Constitution established the country as a Christian nation.
They didn't, and it doesn't.
Currently, a vocal and politically conservative religious movement, akin to the Moral Majority of the 1980s, is using God-talk in public discourse to contradict the intent of the Founding Fathers. References to the divine are rhetorical ammunition utilized by Christian conservatives in the ongoing culture wars.
This attempt to divide the country into categories of religious vs. nonreligious is simplistic and discriminatory.
According to Beliefnet.com, conservative protestant Christians "are Bible-centered, viewing the Holy Bible as the final and only authority, the inerrant Word of God, interpreted literally as law." Could this belief in a higher law become a threat to the "Blessings of Liberty" (a phrase actually in the U.S. Constitution) of non-believers?
Perhaps. A nationwide study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found atheists to be the most distrusted of minorities, more so than Muslims, recent immigrants, and gays.
There appears to be a special sort of prejudice reserved for those who choose to doubt the existence of God, even though their numbers are on the rise.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey as published in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, atheists and the nonreligious comprise about 15 percent of the U.S. population, a larger percentage than Jews, gays or even African Americans.
It won't be long until non-believers recognize that, by voting as a bloc, they can change the landscape of local, state and even national elections -- utilizing the same political strategy as conservative Christians.
Atheists, like so many other scorned groups before them, will have to guard against a majority that seeks to strip them of constitutional freedoms. Love them or hate them, atheists have rights, too.
And is hatred really a Christian value?
Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University. One is a Christian and the other is an atheist.