Absence of faith: There can be no religious test for public office

Absence of faith: There can be no religious test for public office
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In the mid-20th century, Roy Torcaso sought to become a notary public. But in order to accept such a position, Torcaso would have had to declare his “belief in the existence of God” so that he could hold public office in Maryland.

Torcaso was an atheist and declined to make such a statement, so his application was denied. He sued, believing that his constitutional rights had been violated.

The Maryland Court of Appeals said that Torcaso was “not compelled to believe or disbelieve, under threat of punishment or other compulsion. True, unless he makes the declaration of belief, he cannot hold public office in Maryland, but he is not compelled to hold office.”


In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, stating, “We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’” The high court cited the experience of one prominent Catholic in Maryland’s early history, George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, who “felt compelled by his conscience to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy in England at the cost of resigning from high governmental office.”


Roy Torcaso and I probably wouldn’t have agreed on much, given his avowed lack of a belief in God and my role as the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore. But I think we could agree that swearing a particular oath could cause problems for either of us, based on our backgrounds. From all accounts, Torcaso was proud of the Supreme Court’s decision in his case, which finally allowed him to become a notary public.

We can look at the court’s ruling today — more than half a century later — and see that it is unfortunately as important as ever.

In recent months, we have seen nominees for public office receive increased scrutiny from U.S. senators who have been deeply critical of the nominees’ religious beliefs.

For instance, a nominee for a post at the Office of Management and Budget was asked during his confirmation hearing in June, “[D]o you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?”

And a nominee for the federal judiciary was asked by one senator whether she considers herself an “orthodox Catholic,” and chided by another because “the dogma lives loudly within” her. Undeterred by the appropriate backlash to this line of questioning, others have doubled down on it, arguing that the nominee should have disclosed to the Senate whether she is now or has ever been a member of a particular religious community within the Catholic Church.

Our lawmakers seem to be forgetting the Supreme Court’s admonition in Torcaso, as well as Article VI of the Constitution, that government cannot force someone to profess a belief — or disbelief — in any religion, in order to hold public office.

The end result cannot be the Maryland Court of Appeals’ proffer, that no one is compelled to hold office, so there’s nothing to worry about. And thankfully, the Supreme Court rejected such an idea.

Instead, we need to allow space for differing opinions in a pluralistic society. A person’s faith should not disqualify her from public office, and excluding religious beliefs from the public square would be a poor representation of the diversity of our country when it comes to people of faith.

The recent comments from U.S. senators have a chilling effect on those who may be considering serving in the federal government in some capacity — as an economist, a judge or any of the hundreds of positions that require Senate confirmation. Why bother to leave the comfort of the private sector, where no secular employer would fathom asking these kinds of questions about an applicant’s faith (and such questions would almost certainly be illegal there as well)?

Let’s take a page from history and allow those who are otherwise qualified by their academic and professional achievements to serve in public office, regardless of their religious beliefs — or lack thereof. I hope Roy Torcaso, despite our differences, could at least agree with me on that.

William E. Lori is archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.