Some freedom-from-religion advocates are pressing Tennessee and six other states to remove provisions from their state constitutions that prohibit people who don't believe in God from holding public office.
The other states are Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Texas, according to the Openly Secular coalition, based in Columbus, Ohio. The New York Times reported on the group's campaign Dec. 6.
Such bans are unenforceable, according to a 1961 Supreme Court decision. The high court ruled unanimously in a Maryland case that states cannot have a "religious test" for public office.
The state provisions should therefore be removed, said Todd Stiefel, chairman of the Openly Secular coalition, based in Columbus, Ohio.
"If it was on the books that Jews couldn't hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn't vote, that would be a no-brainer. You'd have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed," he told the Times.
Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the ban is among a number of what he called "obsolete provisions that are littering the constitution." He said those items could best be addressed by a constitutional convention. Marylanders get to vote every 20 years on whether to hold a constitutional convention. The next referendum is set for 2030.
Raskin, who is also a professor of constitutional law at American University, said the provisions are rarely invoked. "It's unconstitutional, so it's unenforceable," he said.
State Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, the Senate's minority whip, said he believes in pluralism but isn't convinced any action is needed.
"I think what they want is an affirmation that the people of the state of Maryland don't care about the Christian faith, and that is a little offensive," Shank told the Times.