In January 2021, Republican Tennessee State Senator Mark Pody sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 55 to amend Article IX of the Constitution of Tennessee. Article IX has three sections that bar church ministers, atheists, and people who participate or aid a duel from holding any office in the civil department of the state.
Tennessee’s Constitution includes a provision that bars three groups from holding office: atheists, ministers and those...
Section II of the Article states, "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state." Six states other than Tennessee have a similar bar on atheists holding public offices.
Section III of the Article states, "Any person who shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, fight a duel, or knowingly be the bearer of a challenge to fight a duel, or send or accept a challenge for that purpose, or be an aider or abettor in fighting a duel, shall be deprived of the right to hold any office of honor or profit in this state, and shall be punished otherwise, in such manner as the Legislature may prescribe."
However, the steps to amend Article IX will only remove Section I, the clause that states "no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature." As stated in the section, the reasoning for this bar is "ministers of Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought to not be diverted from the great duties of their functions."
Kristina Lee — a religious and political rhetoric scholar — believes that such bars on atheists from holding public offices reflect the normalization of anti-atheism that is hardly ever acknowledged in the United States.
Atheist activist and blogger, Hemant Mehta, believes that Tennessee lawmakers are deliberately choosing not to get rid of the entire Article even though it would have taken no additional work to get rid of the bar on atheists.
During a hearing of the State and Local Government Committee, State Senator Mark Pody brought up the same point. "If we're going to do that, should we just clean up everything that's currently [unconstitutional] in the Tennessee Constitution? We have numerous provisions that can be deleted. Seems like that would be a more sensible way of doing it and putting it in one resolution."
Pody responded by saying that it is best to clean up the constitution "one simple step at a time."
Early enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke have expressed intolerance towards atheists. Both of them were influenced by early American politicians. In his 1689 "Letter Concerning Toleration," Locke argues that those who deny the being of a God "are not at all to be tolerated."
Locke continues, "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist."
Supreme Court rulings in 1961 and 1978 have already made it unconstitutional to ban atheists and ministers. While Tennessee is the last remaining state to have an unenforceable ban on ministers in their Constitution, seven states still have the unconstitutional ban on atheists.
Herb Silverman, a maths professor and atheist activist, was denied a position as a notary public in South Carolina in 1992. This led to him suing the state before he could hold the position.
In 2009, local Democratic candidate Cecil Bothwell had to fight critics after winning his city council race in Asheville, North Carolina. His critics claimed he was ineligible because of his atheism.
Todd Stiefel — the chairman and primary funder of Openly Secular coalition — noted, "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?"
While atheism is not banned in the United States, atheists have long been framed as un-American. A survey from 2015 found that 77% of seniors say that believing in god is important when being considered "Truly American." 52% of people ages 18-29 agree with that same statement.
Louis Rabaut, a Democratic Representative, proposed adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, arguing that an "atheistic American" is a "contradiction in terms."
Barack Obama's acknowledgment of the existence of "non-believers" in his 2009 inaugural address led to questions whether it was "offensive" and could lead to dangerous misunderstandings about "our true nature as a nation."
According to polls, 4% of Americans identify as atheists, and about 23% identify as non-religious. However, more research suggests that 25% of Americans are atheists, even though most are unwilling to reveal this even in anonymous polls.