If you're an atheist and interested in becoming a city council member or a juror in Maryland, well you can forget it: the East Coast state is one of seven in the US, which thanks to long-standing provisions in their state constitution, prohibits those who don't believe in God from holding public office.
Atheists are up in arms about the old-fashioned restriction, which also affects non-believers in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, and are trying to get rid of the bans.
Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told VICE News that these laws are "outdated provisions from a more bigoted time" but that they send a worrying message to atheists and non-believers.
"If these affected Jews, Catholics, Mormons, they would have been removed long ago," Boston said. "Atheists are still pretty unpopular in the US. They scrap the bottom along with Muslims here," he added.
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A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center this year backs his claim, showing that almost 50 percent of Americans would disapprove if a family member married an atheist.
While a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1961 ruled states could not have a "religious test" for public office and Article VI of the United States Constitution echoes the statement that no "religious test" should ever be needed for federal positions, there are several morerecent examples of attempts to enforce such provisions.
In 1992, Herb Silverman — an atheist activist and math professor at the College of Charleston — was denied a position as a public notary in South Carolina but overturned the decision in a state supreme court ruling 5 years later. In 2009, Cecil Bothwell, a writer, won a seat on the Asheville City Council in North Carolina but opponents tried to evoke the ban on atheists to force him out of his seat. They were unsuccessful and soon backed down.
Groups like Americans United and Openly Secular, a coalition of 30 groups begun this year that is trying to raise support and awareness for atheists in the US — even encouraging high profile atheists like former Congressman Barney Frank and retired football player Chris Kluwe to "come out" — say that the bans, while legally harmless, are offensive and unconstitutional.
Still, removing the provisions is a complex, lengthy, and at times costly process. In many instances such changes have to go to a public vote, which requires great organization.
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According to Boston, another part of the problem is the lack of political will to push forward such small but symbolic changes.
"Very few politicians are willing to stick their necks out for the atheist community," said Boston. "They don't think they have anything to gain so they are not willing to do that."
Christopher B. Shank, the Republican minority whip in the Maryland State Senate, told the New York Times that while he believed in pluralism, "I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don't care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive."
Politics is not something atheists as a group have much clout over. Unlike other faith groups who have huge presence or influence on Capitol Hill and in the Senate, "the atheist community in this country is not well organized politically," said Boston.
Indeed, in the same Pew poll, the study found that over half of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate they knew was an atheist. Furthermore, they forgave a candidate who cheated on their spouse or had used marijuana before forgiving their atheist beliefs.
So while this issue is more a matter of backward legal leftovers in few state constitutions, non-believers, like Boston, feel that more could be done to protect the standing of atheists in the US. He also explained that atheists want to use this legal issue to raise the group's political profile.
"Exit-polling data shows the number of secularists in the US is increasing and with that the group is going to want to form a political constituency with more influence," he said.
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