The Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), found that requiring an oath to affirm belief in “the existence of God” in order to hold public office violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Torcaso denied public office for refusing to state his belief in God
Roy Torcaso was appointed as a notary public by the governor of Maryland, but was denied his commission for refusing to affirm his belief in the “existence of God” as required by article 37 of the Declaration of Rights of the Maryland Constitution. Torcaso sued in state court to receive his commission and was denied. The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, upheld the lower court decision, finding that the state’s constitutional requirement was self-executing while also concluding that Torcaso was “not compelled to hold office.” Torcaso said of his suit, “The point at issue is not whether I believe in a Supreme Being, but whether the state has a right to inquire into my beliefs” (Bernstein 2007).
Court said the religious test violated the First Amendment
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, declaring the use of a religious test an unconstitutional practice. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Hugo L. Black stated that the Maryland requirement clearly places the “power and authority of the State of Maryland . . . on the side of one particular set of believers — those who are willing to say they believe in ‘the existence of God.’” Black then dismissed Maryland’s claim that its oath requirement does not compel any citizen to “believe or disbelieve.” Rather, it only compels those who voluntarily seek public office to affirm belief in God, and no person is “compelled to hold office.” Black, citing Wieman v. Updegraff (1952), wrote that the mere fact “that a person is not compelled to hold public office cannot possibly be an excuse for barring him from office by state-imposed criteria forbidden by the Constitution.”
Alex Aichinger is a former professor at Northwestern State University in Louisiana. He has also contributed to American Constitutional Law Volumes I and II. This article was originally published in 2009.