In (blank) we trust

The Economist, 96.10.12 p.48

Charleston, South Carolina

In 1961, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments cannot require a belief in God. Herb Silverman, a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston, was therefore astonished several years ago when a colleague mentioned that a public officer in South Carolina must believe in a Supreme Being.

Mr. Silverman, an avowed atheist, wanted to be a notary public, a state officer who witnesses signatures and can preside at weddings. The state refused to let him. In 1993, Mr. Silverman and the American Civil Liberties Union sued; and, last year, a lower-court judge agreed with Mr. Silverman that the state constitution's language was illegal.

South Carolina is appealing the ruling. The state claims that Mr. Silverman was denied his notary's commission not on account of his atheism, but because he scratched out "God" on the application's oath, and because he failed to get the required number of legislators' signatures. Mr. Silverman's lawyer -- who, by a nice irony, is now a second-year student at the Harvard Divinity School -- retorts that Mr. Silverman's was the only application rejected out of 30,000.

The constitutions of six other states -- Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas -- also require that public officers believe in a higher power, although the clauses are not generally enforced. Most of them are relics of the colonial age, intended to prevent Catholics, Jews and atheists from holding office. Pennsylvania's constitution still insists that holders of public office must believe not only in a Supreme Being but also in "a future state of rewards and punishments."

Mr. Silverman, raised in the Jewish faith, says he will enjoy being a notary public if he wins his case. He hopes it will "change the hearts and minds of some of my fellow South Carolinians who don't believe that atheists can be moral and ethical people."