Carolina Supreme Court
Okays Atheists for Public Office
American Civil Liberties Union
May 30, 1997
Columbia, South Carolina -- An atheist does not have to swear to a "supreme being" to hold public office in South Carolina, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
According to a report in The State, the court's five justices unanimously agreed that the requirement violates the U.S. Constitution and upheld a lower court ruling in the case of a College of Charleton professor. The professor, Herb Silverman, is an atheist whose application for notary public was turned down because he had crossed out the part of an oath that read "so help me God."
"The state Supreme Court didn't hesitate to find the religious test for public office to be a violation of religious freedom," Steven Bates, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina, told the State.
The ACLU had filed the original lawsuit in 1993 on behalf of Professor Silverman.
The South Carolina high court agreed that forcing public officers to acknowledge the existence of a "supreme being" -- required by the state's constitution -- violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment that provides for religious liberty and separation of church and state.
South Carolina was one of seven states that require belief in a higher power to hold public office, the State said.
Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have similar clauses, the paper said, but they don't enforce them.
Today September 1995
Silverman Overturns Illegal
After a three-year lawsuit, South Carolina Foundation member Herb Silverman succeeded in August in overturning his state's unconstitutional religious test for public office.
"It looks like I may have finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a notary public," says the pleased professor of math at the College of Charleston.
On August 9, the southeast version of the Wall Street Journal recognized his achievement by placing him in their "winners" column. "It's a wonderful day when a conservative newspaper like the Wall Street Journal calls atheists winners," he added.
Fifth Circuit Judge Thomas L. Hughston, Jr., ruled that state laws requiring officeholders to sign oaths affirming the existence of a deity are unconstitutional.
"The state cannot require any religious belief including a call for 'God's help' as a requirement for appointment to office," wrote Hughston.
Back in 1992, when Prof. Silverman applied to become a notary public, he struck "God" out of the phrase "so help me God" on the application.
Then-Gov. Carroll A. Campbell, Jr., and Secretary of State Jim Miles both rejected the application.
Hughston wrote: "No religious test may be applied in considering
this application including that of the Constitution of South Carolina
The U.S. Constitution, in Article VI, expressly forbids any religious test for public office. The Torcaso v. Watkins Supreme Court ruling, unanimously overturning a similar religious requirement for notary publics in the state of Maryland, was issued in 1961, yet several renegade states refuse to rid their statutes of illegal religious tests.
Prof. Silverman fought another religious test in South Carolina statutes in 1990, challenging the requirement of a religious oath for the Governor's seat by running for governor himself as an atheist. A judge threw his suit out of court as moot when he did not win.
The judge gave the Governor of the State of South Carolina 30 days to act on Silverman's application.
The case is Herb Silverman v. Gov. Carroll A. Campbell and Secretary of State Jim Miles, Order 94-CP-40-3594, dated August 2, 1995.
South Carolina Policy
Banning Atheists from Government
from Maranatha Christian Journal
Columbia, South Carolina (EP) -- Political office in South Carolina has a simple rule: atheists need not apply. It's not just that the Bible-belt state's population is unlikely to vote for an atheist. In South Carolina, there's actually a state constitutional requirement that all public officers -- from Governor down to a notary public -- acknowledge the existence of a "supreme" being.
Atheist Herb Silverman has taken his battle over that requirement all the way to the state's Supreme Court. The 54-year-old math teacher from Charleston filed an application to become a notary public in 1992. He was rejected.
"Of 30,000 applications for notary public, this is the only one that is from a devout atheist and the only one that has been denied," said Edmund Robinson of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is representing Silverman.
But Brad Waring, an attorney for the state, said Silverman's application was rejected because it lacked the correct number of signatures, and because he had crossed-out the word "God" from the constitutionally required oath of office.
"If the word protect, preserve or defend had been struck from the application, the result would have been exactly the same," Waring told the court. "There was no religious discrimination in this case, and there was no evidence presented of it."
A lower court ruled that South Carolina violated the First Amendment by forbidding atheists to hold public office. Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston Jr. ruled that "The state cannot require any religious belief including a call for 'God's help' as a requirement for appointment to office." A notary public must pledge to fulfill their duties, "so help me God." Republican Gov. David Beasley, who is a born-again Christian, appealed the ruling.
Since 1868, the South Carolina Constitution has said, "No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution." At least six other states -- Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas -- have similar clauses in their constitutions, but do not enforce them.