The citizens of Ashville, N.C., recently elected an atheist, Cecil Bothwell, to serve on their city council, but North Carolina's state constitution prohibits anyone "who shall deny the being of Almighty God" from holding public office.
Cecil Bothwell, right, was recently elected to the city council of Asheville, N.C. His critics suggest his atheism makes him unfit for public office. (Bothwell photo: cecilbothwell.wordpress.com)
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, however, says "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Some conservatives had suggested that Bothwell not be sworn in until the conflict between the state's constitution and the U.S. Constitution could be resolved. Never mind that the U.S. Constitution clearly trumps the state's.
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association suggests that Article VI does not apply in North Carolina or any other state. Fischer and the Religious Right have long been reviving "states rights" arguments that legitimated the losing causes of the Civil War era. This time, instead of slavery, they are trying to legitimate the establishment of religion and the persecution of persons of minority faith and no faith.
The 14th Amendment protects a person's rights from being denied by any state. If the Religious Right and Fischer's contentions were true – and the 14th Amendment doesn't apply to all the rights contained in the Bill of Rights to the citizens of every state – what else would that mean?
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It would mean that freedom of speech, press, assembly, petition and the free exercise of religion are no longer rights but mere benefits granted and withdrawn at the shifting whims of the electorate in every state.
It would mean that no one can be sure that they will be free from unreasonable searches and seizures or free from cruel and unusual punishment. It would mean that we have no guarantee of legal counsel or of a speedy trial or of a public trial before a jury of our peers.
In effect, it would make the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights a hollow and meaningless document.
It wouldn't surprise me if Fischer and the Religious Right would gladly trade these birthrights for a bowl or two of Christian Nationalist porridge.
It would surprise me if they would be happy to learn that they were no longer guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms – and that would also be in jeopardy.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists.