Arkansas atheists have the same rights as religious believers, to hold office and testify in court and state laws to the contrary should be stricken from the books, said lawyers at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a letter to the Arkansas legislature today (Feb. 17, 2009).
"The free expression of religious belief, together with what James Madison called ‘the full and equal rights of conscience,’ should apply to people of all religious traditions – including atheists. Government should no more penalize a person for professing atheism than from professing a belief in Christianity, Buddhism or Islam," the Becket Fund letter said.
The Arkansas Constitution specifically bans any "person who denies the being of God" from holding a position in any government office or from testifying in court.
Rep. Richard Carroll, who is Catholic and a newly elected member of the Green Party, introduced HJR 1009 to lift the ban on atheists Feb. 11.
The history of the United States is replete with laws designed to keep persons of the "wrong faith" from participating in public life, said the Becket Fund letter. Many of the nation’s pilgrims and earliest immigrants came to the America to escape similar laws in Europe. They then wrote their own laws prohibiting other faiths, often directed at Catholics, Quakers or Jews. Most of those laws have been removed from state constitutions. The U.S. Supreme Court forced Maryland to remove a similar law discriminating against atheists in 1961. South Carolina removed its version a few years ago. They remain on the books in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.
"While it is unlikely that these laws will ever be enforced, removing them is more than symbolic. It signals to U.S. citizens and to the rest of the world, that the freedom and sanctity of conscience – including the right to believe there is no God at all – is a fundamental right for all people," said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Becket Fund letter notes that laws in Saudi Arabia and Iran prevent their citizens, who profess minority faiths such as Christianity, from full participation in civic life by means of anti-blasphemy laws. By deleting its own anti-atheism provision, the letter argues, Arkansas can set an example for these countries to change their laws.
The Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonpartisan, interfaith, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.