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Religious Test for Public Office


As early as the seventeenth century roger williams expressed his dissent from the common practice, inherited from England, of imposing a religious test for public office. However, by the beginning of the eighteenth century even Rhode Island had adopted the pattern prevailing among the other colonies and had enacted a law that limited citizenship and eligibility for public office to Protestants.

Most liberal of these was Pennsylvania's law, which required a belief that God was "the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked." At the other extreme was that of North Carolina, which disqualified from office any one who denied "the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of either the Old or New Testament."

After the Revolutionary War, however, the states began the process of disestablishment, including the elimination of religious tests. The 1786 virginia statute of religious liberty, for example, asserted that "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions," and "the proscribing of any citizen as unworthy of being called to office of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right." The constitutional convention of 1787 unanimously adopted the clause of Article VI providing that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

The prohibition applies only to federal offices, and some states having religious tests in their constitutions or laws did not repeal them but contented themselves with limiting them to belief in the existence of God. One of these was Maryland, where an otherwise fully qualified appointee to the office of notary public was denied his commission for the office for refusing to sign the oath.

In torcaso v. watkins (1961) the Supreme Court ruled the denial unconstitutional, relying upon both the no-establishment and the free exercise clauses of the first amendment. As to the former, it asserted that the clause does not bar merely preferential treatment of one religion over others (although even such limited interpretation would require invalidation since the oath preferred theistic over nontheistic faiths such as "Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture and Secular Humanism and others") but also preferential treatment of religion as against nonreligion. The opinion also invoked the free exercise clause in concluding that the provision invades "freedom of religion and belief."

The converse of religious tests for public office, reflecting a prevalent anticlericalism, was the disqualification of clergymen from serving in public office. A majority of the states had such provisions when the Constitution was written, but in McDaniel v. Paty (1978) the Supreme Court held such laws violative of the First Amendment's free exercise clause.

Leo Pfeffer


Pfeffer, Leo (1953) 1967 Church, State and Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.

——1975 God, Caesar and the Constitution. Boston: Beacon Press.

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