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Md. constitution bans atheists from public service

WASHINGTON — Americans hold religious freedom dear, no matter
their beliefs.

And the concept is right in the Maryland Constitution in black and white: “…
all persons are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.”
But there’s a bit more to it.

Go to articles 36 and 37 in the state of Maryland’s Constituti
on
and you’ll see that, if you want to hold office, or even serve as a
juror or witness in the Free State, you’ll have to make “a declaration of
belief in the existence of God.” If you don’t share that belief, you could be
seen as “incompetent” to serve.

So if an atheist in Maryland is called to jury duty, he’s off the hook,
right?

Not so fast.

“First of all, these provisions are unconstitutional. And they’re
unenforceable,”
says Maryland Senator Jamin (Jamie) Raskin, a professor of law at American
University’s Washington College of Law. Raskin adds that it’s time that what
he calls the “relics” in the state constitution be cleaned up and cleared
out. But
there’s no rush to do it in the upcoming General Assembly session.

Raskin says there are only two ways to make a change to the
state’s constitution: one is to pass legislation in the Maryland General
Assembly and then hold a referendum; the second is to call for a
constitutional convention — if the voters agree. Raskin believes that making
the change in 2020 is the way to go.

The New York Times reported that Maryland
is one of just seven states with similar provisions banning atheists from
holding office.

The other states are Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina,
Tennessee and Texas.

Amanda Poppei, a senior leader with the Washington Ethical Society, whose
members may have some religious beliefs or none at all, says she’s familiar
with these laws. She’s also aware of the surveys cited in the Times story that
show that
Americans tend to have a dim view of atheists.

“It’s a bummer,” Poppei says, but she explains her organization is home to a
number of people who share many values with their religious neighbors. They
simply don’t believe in the idea of a divine power calling them to act
ethically.

“Wherever you find that sense of connection to other people, whether that’s
through God or not, that’s what’s important.”

While Raskin, a Democrat, says the provisions banning atheists from public
service should be struck from the state constitution, Sen. Christopher Shank,
a Republican who serves as minority whip, told the New
York Times he has some concerns. The newspaper quoted Shank as saying he
worries
that what those who opposed the existing language 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.”

Raskin says the idea of cleaning up the Maryland Constitution’s language on
the
issue is aimed at the central concept of religious freedom. He says that “In
fact, that’s how you protect religions: You don’t allow one religion to get on
top and dominate everybody else.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.