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RELIGIOUS TEST FLUNKS.

South Carolina seems to be awash With church-state conflict these days. In addition to the outcry over state school board member Henry S. Jordan's comments about Buddhists and Muslims and debates over displaying the Ten Commandments, the state supreme court in May struck down provisions in the South Carolina Constitution imposing a religious test for public office.

The legal challenge was brought by Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston. Silverman, an atheist, first sought to win standing to sue by running for governor as a write-in candidate in 1990.

Silverman never expected to win and in fact garnered only a few hundred votes, leading a court to declare his case moot. In 1992, he tried again after being denied a license as a notary public. On his notary application, Silverman crossed out the religious oath "So help me, God," and filed suit after his application was returned by state officials.

In a brief opinion, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously that two provisions of the state constitution requiring officeholders to express belief in a Supreme Being violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. The South Carolina high court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court declared religious tests for public office unconstitutional in Torcaso v. Watkins, a 1961 case from Maryland.

Although religious requirements for public office were common in the colonial period, they gradually withered away in most states as state constitutions were rewritten following independence.

South Carolina is one of seven states that still retain some type of religious test. The others are Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Some state flatly that non-believers cannot hold public office, while others require all public officials to believe in a "Supreme Being." (Pennsylvania's and Tennessee's also demand belief in "a future state of rewards and punishments.") None of these provisions is apparently being enforced, nor could they be.

Silverman said he never expected that state officials would try to enforce South Carolina's religious test. "Initially I thought this was one of those archaic provisions, like some old law in Massachusetts saying you're not allowed to kiss your wife in public on Sunday," he said. "I thought this was one of those things they just never got around to changing.... The real surprise was not that it was part of the constitution but that it was taken seriously."

While researching the case, Silverman's attorneys, affiliated with the South Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, learned that notary applications were routinely approved in South Carolina -- the attorneys counted 33,000 -- and that Silverman's application was the only one denied.

Silverman prevailed at the Richland County Court of Common Pleas and was surprised when Gov. David M. Beasley filed an appeal before the state supreme court. Beasley, a Republican, was elected in 1994 with strong backing from the Christian Coalition.

On May 27 the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the lower court ruling and struck down the religious test. Silverman, reached by Church & State at the University of California at San Diego where he is spending the summer as a visiting professor, said he hopes the Silverman v. Campbell ruling will make South Carolinians more tolerant of non-believers.

"My seven-year campaign was part of an effort to change the hearts and minds of South Carolinians, not to fulfill a life-long dream of becoming a notary public," he quipped. "I think of this as a victory for civil rights.

"Hopefully, people will recognize that whatever religious views one holds, there is a right to hold public office," Silverman continued. "A lot of people seem to think the Constitution says something about only believers holding public office. I had to point out that the U.S. Constitution says nothing about God.

"I hope people in South Carolina are starting to realize," he concluded, "that the United States was not intended to be a Christian country."
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Article Details
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Author:RB
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1U5SC
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:650
Previous Article:Oh, Henry!
Next Article:Religious Right Kicks Off Campaign For Istook Religion Amendment.
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