By David Waters
There was a bit of suspense in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday morning about whether newly-elected city council member Cecil Bothwell should or would be sworn into office. Bothwell, who was elected last month, is an atheist. The North Carolina constitution still bars atheists from holding elected office.
“I’m not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he’s an atheist, he’s not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution,” said H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president told the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Article 6, section 8 of the North Carolina constitution states: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” Fortunately for Bothwell, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution trumps that: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Also fortunately for Bothwell, state law allows officeholders to “affirm” rather than “swear” the oath of office, which exempted Bothwell from the state law that would have required him to “lay his hand upon the Holy Scriptures” and say, “so help me God.”
Constitutional crisis averted. Cecil Bothwell is now a member of the Asheville city council.
In an earlier email to the Asheville newspaper, Bothwell explained that the exact wording of the North Carolina constitution wouldn’t apply to him anyway. “I am not ‘an avowed atheist.’ . . . I don’t ‘deny the being of Almighty God.’ I simply consider the question of denial or acceptance irrelevant.”
Bothwell’s election — he finished third in a six-person contest with 17.28 percent of the Nov. 3 vote — is doubly impressive, considering that he is a fan of neither God nor Asheville-area resident Billy Graham, whom he called “an unabashed nationalist, capitalist, militarist and advocate for American empire” in a book he wrote entitled “The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire.”
If there ever was a wholly Christian empire in Billy Graham’s North Carolina, it ended Tuesday. Might be a good time to update that state constitution.
UPDATE: Anti-Bothwell activists are considering filing a lawsuit to test the legality of his election.