Today, September 17, is Constitution Day, in honor of the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787. The Constitution was a radical document at that time, and one of the most unique aspects of it was its recognition that a person’s religious beliefs should not cause him/her to be denied political rights.

When discussing the separation of church and state, most people quote the First Amendment of the constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This is not the only place where religious freedom is protected in the Constitution. The third paragraph of Article VI states: “…but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

To understand the significance of this law, one must know that even into the 19th century, a person seeking public office in a Christian country often needed to swear on a Bible and affirm that they were faithful to church and state. Article VI made it clear that religion would not hold a person back from Federal office. 

Because the framers of the Constitution were careful to maintain the rights of the individual states, the prohibition against requiring a religious test or oath was for Federal positions only. Each state had a right to determine its own law, and eight states did incorporate a religious requirement for their officeholders: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Some of these states have removed these laws, while other simply no longer enforce them.

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