Can atheists hold public office in Texas?

Just in time for Christmas, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal story revisited the language in the Texas Constitution that would bar atheists from serving in public office in  Texas. As the story points out, Article I, section 4 of the Texas Constitution has this interesting provision:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

The provision is interesting because it rejects one religious test before requiring another. It would be interesting to hear exactly what the authors of this provision were worried about and why they didn’t leave the matter of belief for voters. I’d hate to be on the Texas Supreme Court trying to figure out what constitutes a “Supreme Being.” Buddha would seem to work for Buddhists, but I’m not sure if that’s what the constitutional convention had in mind.

The North Carolina Constitution’s language disqualifying anyone “who shall deny the being of Almighty God” is interesting since it implies that they have Someone particular in mind. In contrast, the Texas Constitution’s demand of belief in “a Supreme Being” suggests that there might be more than one correct answer.

These constitutional provisions haven’t been much of an issue since it seems clear to most observers that this provision of the Texas Constitution is unenforceable and if someone were excluded from office it would be struck down because it conflicted with the establishment clause of the US Constitution. In the meantime, it’s still officially in the Texas Constitution.

There’s some speculation in the article about why provisions such as this remain in state constitutions. One source notes that it would not be worth the effort to change these provision since they’re not enforceable. What’s not specifically mentioned there is the political risk. We’ve proven time and time again that the Texas Constitution can be amended. The process can handle the change. However, I doubt that any member of the Legislature is interested in taking up the task lest they be attacked during the next campaign for something like “taking God of Texas.” The costs of some housecleaning chores are too high.


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