Lawsuit threatened over atheist councilman in NC
By ALYSIA PATTERSON AP - YAHOO NEWS
Added: Sat, 12 Dec 2009 00:00:00 UTC
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RALEIGH, N.C. – Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government — but he doesn't believe in God. His political opponents say that's a sin that makes him unworthy of serving in office, and they've got the North Carolina Constitution on their side.
Bothwell's detractors are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in, even though the state's antiquated requirement that officeholders believe in God is unenforceable because it violates the U.S. Consititution.
"The question of whether or not God exists is not particularly interesting to me and it's certainly not relevant to public office," the recently elected 59-year-old said.
Bothwell ran this fall on a platform that also included limiting the height of downtown buildings and saving trees in the city's core, views that appealed to voters in the liberal-leaning community at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. When Bothwell was sworn into office on Monday, he used an alternative oath that doesn't require officials to swear on a Bible or reference "Almighty God."
That has riled conservative activists, who cite a little-noticed quirk in North Carolina's Constitution that disqualifies officeholders "who shall deny the being of Almighty God." The provision was included when the document was drafted in 1868 and wasn't revised when North Carolina amended its constitution in 1971. One foe, H.K. Edgerton, is threatening to file a lawsuit in state court against the city to challenge Bothwell's appointment.
But the federal protections don't necessarily spare atheist public officials from spending years defending themselves in court. Avowed atheist Herb Silverman won an eight-year court battle in 1997 when South Carolina's highest court granted him the right to be appointed as a notary despite the state's law.
But the battle is important to Silverman, who says there are scores of other atheist politicians afraid to "come out of the closet." He cited U.S. Rep. Pete Stark of California, the first and only congressman to publicly acknowledge he doesn't believe in God.
"We're trying to change our culture to the point where it's not political suicide," Silverman said.
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