South Carolina’s Secular Crusader
In a new memoir, Herb Silverman recounts his legal battle against a state ban on atheists seeking public office
Not to be dissuaded from a struggle now lodged in his ethical core, he applied the following year for a state license as notary public. Silverman reasoned that if South Carolina were to grant him the license, “it would be an admission from the state that religious tests could no longer be a qualification for public office.” Naturally, he crossed out the oath on the application that said “so help me God.”
“My point,” Silverman writes, “was that it’s proper for government to regulate some behavior, but it’s neither proper nor possible to regulate belief.”
Silverman’s account of the resultant back-and-forth between his petition for a mundane license and the refusal of Gov. Campbell—his former opponent in the gubernatorial race—to approve it is the stuff of high surrealism. A deposition established that 33,471 notary applications had been approved by the state of South Carolina between 1991 and 1993. “To my knowledge,” Silverman writes, “I am the only person in the history of South Carolina to be rejected as a notary public.”
After an eight-year battle, on May 27, 1997, the State Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the circuit court’s prior ruling that the religious test was unconstitutional with reference to U.S. law. Silverman hilariously describes his jubilation at picking up his notary commission from the county clerk’s office.
Silverman went on to found the Secular Coalition for America, among other groups, to advocate nationally for greater tolerance and understanding of the non-religious constituency. While he shares his views with a minority of compatriots—16 percent of Americans declared no religious affiliation and less than 2 percent described themselves as atheists in a 2010 Gallup poll—he is clear about the importance of maintaining church-state separation and bothered by the tendency of atheists to keep their views in the closet.
“A worrying trend for me now is how politicized the Christian fundamentalist sector has become,” he told me this month just before setting off to the American Humanist Association convention in New Orleans, “running political campaigns and putting money behind them. This makes it ever more important for the secular humanist movement to communicate what they’re about.”
Some five months before the 2012 elections, American voters are already weary of the hypocritical exploitation of religion by the political class. Silverman’s brave and illuminating book may serve to open some of those closets and to prevent some of the doors of religious intolerance from being slammed in the faces of those who emerge.
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