Politics: North Carolina Political Landscape; Don’t Believe In God? Guess You Can’t Run for Office


Sean Riordan

History and Background

One notable provision in the North Carolina State Constitution is under the section for eligibility for public office. Article 4, Section 8 states that “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” is disqualified from holding public office. 

This constitutional clause is common in southern states. In fact, there are seven other states that share this “law”. 

This comes off as a partisan issue, as the majority of atheists lean Democratic. This provision unfairly limits Democratic candidates. This is the only constitutional provision for qualifications for a political candidacy that is politically charged towards one side of the aisle or another. 

Has There Been An Atheist in Office?

This has been one self-proclaimed atheist in public office in North Carolina history. Asheville city council member Cecil Bothwell served from 2009 to 2017. He did not place his hand on the Bible when being sworn in. He also left out “so help me God” when referring to upholding the U.S. and North Carolina constitution, but delivered the rest of the oath as written.

  1. K. Edgerton, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, threatened to sue the city of Ashville for allowing Bothwell to be sworn into public office. This was before Bothwell even had a chance to serve in office. This lawsuit went nowhere, and Bothwell was able to serve as city council member.

Is this Law Constitutional? 

This law is in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Both atheism and the lack of religious belief are protected under the law in the same way religion is protected under the constitution. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no legal preference for religion over irreligion. 

There is also the issue of separation of church and state. The separation of church and state has been a right of the people since the founding of America. It is in the first clause in the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. 

Article 4 Section 8, prohibiting atheists from holding office, was written in 1868. This rule barring atheists from running was never honoring the founding of America and was never legal under the Constitution. Additionally, the US constitutional law is superior to state laws. 

This was upheld in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins (1961). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of an atheist who ran for office in Maryland, despite the state constitution banning it. This ruling banned religious tests for public office and was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961.

Why is it Still in the State Constitution?

So Article 4 Section 8 is constitutionally illegal, and cannot be enforced due to the Watkins decision.  

However, amending the state constitution is a difficult process. It would require a two-thirds majority to amend the constitution, which is unlikely to happen any time soon as the Republicans hold the majority. 

Republicans have no political incentive to remove this law. It has the potential to upset their political base well as having no benefits if removed. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians make up over 80% of the Republican party. 

Additionally, it allows Republicans to scrutinize any atheists who run for office.  Atheists are significantly more likely to be registered as Democrats with only 15% identifying as Republican. 

Article 4 Section 8 was written in 1868, then was ruled illegal in 1961. The North Carolina State Constitution was last rewritten in 1971. This means this law was deliberately left in the state constitution despite being illegal and outdated. 


 Ironically enough, it is typical for those serving public office to swear on God when being sworn into office. Specifically, swearing to uphold this U.S. and state constitution. Although the separation of church and state is in the constitution under the first amendment. 

This means this habit of swearing into office under God is in nature, hypocritical. Religion should never be a prerequisite for participation in government.