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Groups Try to Strip Atheist Provision From Arkansas Constitution


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Groups Try to Strip Atheist Provision From Arkansas Constitution

BY KARIN HAMILTON

©2009 Religion News Service

A religious liberty watchdog group has joined a campaign to strip the Arkansas Constitution of a provision that prohibits atheists from holding office and testifying in court.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter on February 17 to the Arkansas legislature in support of a bill to amend Article 19, Section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution, which states: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court."

"The free expression of religious belief, together with what James Madison called 'the full and equal rights of conscience,' should apply to people of all religious traditions -- including atheists. Government should no more penalize a person for professing atheism than for professing a belief in Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam," the Becket Fund letter said.

Although the letter acknowledged the atheist provision isn't likely to be enforced, it compared it to laws currently in nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran that discount court testimonies of non-Muslims, denying them of full civil and political rights.

Eric Rassbach, national litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, believes that removing this portion of the

constitution is more than mere symbolism.

"It signals to U.S. citizens and to the rest of the world, that the freedom and sanctity of conscience -- including the right to believe there is no God at all--is a fundamental right for all people," Rassbach said.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared a similar Maryland law discriminating against atheists unconstitutional in 1961, according to the Becket Fund. South Carolina's constitution was amended in 1997. Texas and Tennessee still have similar provisions in their state constitutions.

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