Unlike North Carolina Atheists, Washington's Godless Are Allowed to Hold Public Office

Some people in Asheville think city councilman Cecil Bothwell should lose his job because he doesn't believe in God.
Cecil Bothwell is a recently elected city councilmen in Asheville, North Carolina. He's also an atheist. A fact that probably doesn't matter much to most people in Asheville, except that it technically makes him ineligible for his job. Here's why.

Midway through the 19th-century, North Carolina introduced a constitutional clause that forbade "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God" from holding public office. Now a couple of conservative groups are insisting that that law be observed. They're threatening to sue the city if Bothwell isn't removed and, in the meantime, smearing him in pamphlets as "Satan's helper."

It's easy to look at what's happening to Bothwell and chalk it up as a byproduct of God-and-guns Southern living. But constitutional quirks aren't exclusive to states below the Mason-Dixon line. So I called Hugh Spitzer, the University of Washington Law School's constitutional authority, to see if the Evergreen State's formal text had anything similar.

Washington state constitutional expert Hugh Spitzer says local atheists/aspiring politicians can breathe easy.
Spitzer's very entertaining short answer?

"Oh no. Not even close," he says. "This is just bullshit harassment. It's a waste of taxpayer time and money. These people who do these things should be happy that the United States gives them the right to have such silly ideas."

Spitzer's slightly less entertaining long answer?

Washington has quirks. But in terms of protecting religious freedom (which includes the right to subscribe to no religion), Washington is kind of like the anti-North Carolina.

For proof, Spitzer points to the drafting of the state's preamble. This is what it says.

We, the people of the State of Washington, grateful to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for our liberties, do ordain this constitution.

Now to you or I, "Supreme Ruler of the Universe" probably sounds pretty Godly. But to the delegation in 1889 Washington it represented a compromise.

"There was a two-day debate over whether the constitution should in any way whatsoever mention the word God," says Spitzer. "They settled on 'Supreme Ruler' because while there were a lot of Free Thinkers present at the time, there were also a few devout Protestants."

OK. So 150 years ago Washington was more progressive than North Carolina when it came to irreligious tolerance. But there has to be something equally quirky in our constitution right?

"Oh of course," says Spitzer. "Constitutions reflect the concerns of the people at the time that they were written. That's why it's the law in Washington that if two railroad tracks of same or similar gauge cross there must be an intertie, also known as a switch. Do you think that belongs in there?"

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