Skip to main content

Religious Test for Public Office

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
(1986)

Bibliography

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

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Religious Test for Public Office." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Religious Test for Public Office." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 12, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/religious-test-public-office

"Religious Test for Public Office." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Retrieved November 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/religious-test-public-office

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.