When Housecleaning Takes Courage

February 19, 2009

As I reported way back in 1999, seven U.S. states (Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) retain archaic provisions in their constitutions that forbid persons not believing in a deity from attaining elective office (“Outlawing Unbelief,” FREE INQUIRY Winter 1999-2000, p. 13-14; online at https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=flynn_20_1 ). Some states go further and (on paper, at least) bar atheists from testifying in court. In my article I bewailed the fact that while none of these provisions are enforceable in today’s legal climate, it seemed unlikely that any state legislator would willingly expend political capital getting one of them repealed.

Well, I’m wrong—maybe. In Arkansas, Rep. Richard Carroll has filed an act to amend the state constitution to repeal its provisions barring unbelievers from elective office and testifying in court. (Look it up: https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2009/R/Pages/BillInformation.aspx?measureno=HJR1009  .)

Carroll represents northern Little Rock, and is the highest-ranking elected official in America affiliated with the Green Party. He also won his last election by a margin on the order of 80 percent ... which may explain why he feels comfortable taking on a cause that’s noble, but also sure to be deeply unpopular among conservative churchgoers.

Kudos to Rep. Carroll for taking on this important act of symbolic housecleaning. I wish him success, but I’m not placing bets. After all, this is the same Arkansas whose state house quashed a 2005 resolution to affirm support for the separation of church and state ... the same Arkansas where a proposal to declare this past January 29 as Thomas Paine Day died in committee. The solon who sponsored the Paine resolution got so much flak that she felt compelled to “assure her colleagues that she was not an atheist,” notes David Waters in the <em>Washington Post</em> On Faith blog. “Which they would have known if they’d read the state constitution.” (See https://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2009/02/an_advocate_for_atheists_in_ar.html .)

Will Rep. Carroll open his living room drapes one day to see a torch-wielding mob outside? Stay tuned ...