By Rob Boston | 14 August 2012
At crucial points when the church-state wall was most threatened in America, people rose up to defend it. Some of these names may not be familiar today, or they may be known for other achievements. All contributed to shoring up the wall of separation.
Here are five unsung heroes of church-state separation:
1. Charles Pinckney: It was difficult to be a religious dissenter in colonial America. Prejudice ran rampant. Many state constitutions limited public office to Christians or even certain types of Christians, such as “Trinitarian Protestants.” Such “religious tests” were seen as a way of ensuring that the men who held public office were of sound morals.
After the Revolution, when the federal Constitution was being drafted, a delegate from South Carolina named Charles Pinckney decided that there should be no such religious qualifications for federal office. He added a line to the end of Article VI – a provision that makes it clear that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that judges and elected representatives are bound to follow it – that read, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
An aristocrat and something of a dandy, the 30-year-old Pinckney relied on old-fashioned political maneuvering to get his way. When he introduced the “no religious test” proposal to the convention, it was shuttled off to a committee, which ignored it. Undaunted, Pinckney brought the proposal up again on the full floor. The measure was seconded by Gouverneur Morris and adopted by the entire convention “by a very great majority,” as one member put it.
But the new Constitution had to be approved by the states, and here Pinckney’s handiwork sparked some controversy. Delegates in North Carolina seemed especially offended by the passage in Article VI. One lawmaker fulminated about the possibility of “pagans, deists and Mahometans” seeking office.
James Madison leaped to the defense of Pinckney’s handiwork in the Federalist Papers, calling it one of the highlights of the proposed constitution. The provision remained intact. Although it was limited to federal office, the provision no doubt inspired the Supreme Court when in 1961 it struck down religious tests at the state level in the case Torcaso v. Watkins. Today a handful of states retain provisions in their constitutions barring atheists from holding public office, but they are dead letters and may not be enforced.