Church/State Battle in NC-Should Atheists Hold Public Office?

A city councilman in a small town in North Carolina is facing a possible lawsuit to remove him from office -- not because of what he's done, but because of what he believes. More specifically, in what he doesn't believe -- in God.

Cecil Bothwell is an atheist. That shouldn't be an issue, since the separation of church and state makes an elected official's religion irrelevant. But it is an issue in North Carolina. When the state constitution was drafted in 1868, a clause was inserted that prohibits "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God" from holding public office.

Conservative groups in Asheville have seized upon the obscure clause to launch a campaign to remove Bothwell from office. They are distributing pamphlets warning locals that Bothwell is "Satan's helper" and a "radical extremist" who is "bashing religion."

Southern heritage supporter H.K. Edgerton says his lawyer is preparing a lawsuit against Asheville for allowing Bothwell to take office.

"If you're an atheist and don't believe in God and still want to hold office, I have a problem with that," Edgerton said. "And the constitution of North Carolina has a problem with that."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that states were prohibited under the U.S. Constitution from requiring a religious test to serve in office. Even still, David Morgan, editor of the Asheville Tribune, a conservative weekly, said the issue is not the separation of church and state. It is a matter of honoring the state constitution.

"If you don't like it, amend it and take out that clause. But don't just pick and choose what parts you're going to obey," Morgan said. "This is serious business. I mean, the belief in God is not exactly a quirk."

Asheville City Attorney Robert Oast, Jr. wouldn't say what the city would do if a lawsuit were to be filed. But he pointed out that the state's general statutes permit officeholders "with conscientious scruples against taking an oath" to affirm, rather than swear, their oath of office -- without being required to say "so help me God." This is exactly what Bothwell did.

For his part, Bothwell said he's not worried about being forced from office. He said the controversy was manufactured by political opponents "who don't want to see a progressive on the council."

He added, "I don't find any need in my day-to-day life for God to explain things to me. "When religion gets tangled up with government, it always causes problems."


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