No Heathens in the Halls

This blog was originally published in January of 2016 on MHA Vice President Amy Craig’s personal blogWith the recent political developments, it is now more important than ever for humanist and secular voters to show up and be visible – in public and at the polls. With our current administrations, both here in Mississippi and at the federal level, pandering to a Religious Right that would curtail the rights of women and the LGBT community, those of us that believe in the separation of church and state have to show we are a constituency. Stand up and speak put! Let people you know, as well as your representatives in government, know you believe in the separation of church and state and that you vote!

The  American Humanist Association is supporting Secular America Votes to get out the secular vote. A secular government requires secular voters! Check out Secular America Votes  and let’s show our representatives that we are a constituency to be served!

I went to this really cool event the other night called Women in the Halls.  It was sponsored by Planned Parenthood and is a movement to encourage more women to engage in politics.  With my state electing fewer women this year than last year, it’s a great time to bring attention to this issue.

The Boys Club of politics must go.  With women only making 70 cents for every dollar men make, with no paid maternity leave, with reproductive rights threatened at every turn, women need to step up and take on the embarrassingly misogynistic legislation in this country.

I am really excited about it.  More women in the hall!  More women with yard signs and power suits and campaign promises! More women introducing bills and voting for my prosperity!  More women’s voices in an overcrowded sea of men!  It almost makes me want to run myself.  After all, the political process is open to everybody.

Well, almost everybody. It is not open to me.

I live in one of seven states in which atheists may not hold public office.  Yes, you read that right.  SEVEN states prohibit atheists from holding office.  Well, that’s unconstitutional, you say.  Highly illegal.  Unenforceable.  Well, you’d think.  I assure you it’s on the books.

My State Constitution states:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.

If you think no one has invoked clauses like this in the last half century or so, think again.  As recently as 2009, an atheist won a seat on the Ashville, North Carolina City Council, and an opponent challenged his win on the basis of his atheism.  That opponent backed down, but in 1997, a South Carolina man had to spend 5 years going all the way to the Supreme Court to protect his office of Notary Public.

Seriously, there are people who think you need God to be a notary?  Don’t be that surprised.  A 2012 Gallup poll found that 43% of American voters would not vote for an atheist for any office.  No word of how that number changes if you live in the Deep South, but I would guess it would be in the high 80’s.

The Openly Secular Coalition is working on this.  They are meeting with state legislators to address this issue.

In a New York Times article which you can read here, Todd Stiefel, chair of Openly Secular states:

 If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer …You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we different?

We aren’t different, and I am greatly appreciative of Openly Secular for pointing this out because otherwise, as I understand it, the only way to beat this law would be for me to run openly as an atheist, win, and then go to court to challenge the Constitution.

I’d never win, of course.  In this area, many atheists are in the closet.  Open atheism would be political suicide.  For many, it would also be professional suicide and certainly social suicide.  If like my New England friend, you ask “how would they know?” I’m sorry to tell you that you’d never win an election here without declaring allegiance to a particular church, preferably a large one, let alone any particular flavor of religious preference. You’d need your pastor to vouch for you.  It would help if you were a deacon or something.

The lack of acceptance of atheists in this country is a problem to be sure. But it’s not a separate problem.  These laws may be outdated and ultimately unenforceable, but they matter.   How can we expect people to accept us if we allow this blatantly discriminatory law to stand?