Torcaso v. Watkins

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation81 S.Ct. 1680,6 L.Ed.2d 982,367 U.S. 488
Docket NumberNo. 373,373
PartiesRoy R. TORCASO, Appellant, v. Clayton K. WATKINS, Clerk of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland
Decision Date19 June 1961

Messrs. Leo Pfeffer, New York City, and Lawrence Speiser, Washington, D.C. (Messrs. Joseph A. Sickles, Carlton R. Sickles, Washington, D.C., Bruce N. Goldberg, Bethesda, Md., Rowland Watts, Baltimore, Md., and George Kaufmann, Washington, D.C., on the brief), for appellant.

Messrs. Thomas B. Finan, Cumberland, Md., and Joseph S. Kaufman, Baltimore, Md. (Messrs. C. Ferdinand Sybert, Ellicott City, Md., Stedman Prescott, Jr., Silver Springs, Md., on the brief), for appellee.

Messrs. Herbert A. Wolff and Leo Rosen, New York City, for American Ethical Union.

Herbert B. Ehrmann, Boston, Mass., Laurence Peirez, Woodside, N.Y., Isaac G. McNatt, Abraham Blumberg, Arnold Forster, Paul Hartman, Theodore Leskes, Edwin J. Lukas and Sol Robkin, New York City, for the American Jewish Committee ad others, amici curiae.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Article 37 of the Declaration of Rights of the Maryland Constitution provides:

'(N)o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God * * *.'

The appellant Torcaso was appointed to the office of Notary Public by the Governor of Maryland but was refused a commission to serve because he would not declare his belief in God. He then brought this action in a Maryland Circuit Court to compel issuance of his commission, charging that the State's requirement that he declare this belief violated 'the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States * * *.'1 The Circuit Court rejected these federal constitutional contentions, and the highest court of the State, the Court of Appeals, affirmed,2 holding that the state constitutional provision is self-executing and requires declaration of belief in God as a qualification for office without need for implementing legislation. The case is therefore properly here on appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1257(2).

There is, and can be, no dispute about the purpose or effect of the Maryland Declaration of Rights requirement before us—it sets up a religious test which was designed to and, if valid, does bar every person who refuses to declare a belief in God from holding a public 'office of profit or trust' in Maryland. The power and authority of the State of Maryland thus is put on the side of one particular sort of believers—those who are willing to say they believe in 'the existence of God.' It is true that there is much historical precedent for such laws. Indeed, it was largely to escape religious test oaths and declarations that a great many of the early colonists left Europe and came here hoping to worship in their own way. It soon developed, however, that many of those who had fled to escape religious test oaths turned out to be perfectly willing, when they had the power to do so, to force dissenters from their faith to take test oaths in conformity with that faith. This brought on a host of laws in the New Colonies imposing burdens and disabilities of various kinds upon varied beliefs depending largely upon what group happened to be politically strong enough to legislate in favor of its own beliefs. The effect of all this was the formal or practical 'establishment' of particular religious faiths in most of the Colonies, with consequent burdens imposed on the free exercise of the faiths of nonfavored believers.3

There were, however, wise and farseeing men in the Colonies too many to mention—who spoke out against test oaths and all the philosophy of intolerance behind them. One of these, it so happens, was George Calvert (the first Lord Baltimore), who took a most important part in the original establishment of the Colony of Maryland. He was a Catholic and had, for this reason, felt compelled by his conscience to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy in England at the cost of resigning from high governmental office. He again refused to take that oath when it was demanded by the Council of the Colony of Virginia, and as a result he was denied settlementi n that Colony.4 A recent historian of the early period of Maryland's life has said that it was Calvert's hope and purpose to establish in Maryland a colonial government free from the religious persecutions he had known—one 'securely beyond the reach of oaths * * *.'5

When our Constitution was adopted, the desire to put the people 'securely beyond the reach' of religious test oaths brought about the inclusion in Article VI of that document of a provision that 'no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.' Article VI supports the accuracy of our observation in Girouard v. United States, 328 U.S. 61, 69, 66 S.Ct. 826, 829, 90 L.Ed. 1084, that '(t)he test oath is abhorrent to our tradition.' Not satisfied, however, with Article VI and other guarantees in the original Constituion, the First Congress proposed and the States very shortly thereafter adopted our Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.6 That Amendment broke new constitutional ground in the protection it sought to afford to freedom of religion, speech, press, petition and assembly. Since prior cases in this Court have thoroughly explored and documented the history behind the First Amendment, the reasons for it, and the scope of the religious freedom it protects, we need not cover that ground again.7 What was said in our prior cases we think controls our decision here.

In Cantwell v. State of Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303—304, 60 S.Ct. 900, 903, 84 L.Ed. 1213, we said:

'The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states a incompetent as Congress to enact such laws * * *. Thus the Amendment embraces two concepts,—freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be.'

Later we decided Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, at pages 15 and 16, 67 S.Ct. 504, at page 511, and said this:

'The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State."

While there were strong dissents in the Everson case, they did not challenge the Court's interpretation of the First Amendment's coverage as being too broad, but thought the Court was applying that interpretation too narrowly to the facts of that case. Not long afterward, in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 68 S.Ct. 461, 92 L.Ed. 648, we were urged to repudiate as dicta the above-quoted Everson interpretation of the scope of the First Amendment's coverage. We declined to do this, but instead strongly reaffirmed what had been said in Everson, calling attention to the fact that both the majority and the minority in Everson had agreed on the principles declared in this part of the Everson opinion. And a concurring opinion in McCollum, written by Mr. Justice Frankfurter and joined by the other Everson dissenters, said this:

'We are all agreed that the First and Fourteenth Amendments have a secular reach far more penetrat- ing in the conduct of Government than merely to forbid an 'established church.' * * * We renew our conviction that 'we have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion."8

The Maryland Court of Appeals thought, and it is argued here, that this Court's later holding and opinion in Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 72 S.Ct. 679, 96 L.Ed. 954, had in part repudiated the statement in the Everson opinion quoted above and previously reaffirmed in McCollum. But the Court's opinion in Zorach specifically stated: 'We follow the McCollum case.' 343 U.S. at page 315, 72 S.Ct. at page 684. Nothing decided or written in Zorach lends support to the idea that the Court there intended to open up the way for government, state or federal, to restore the historically and constitutionally discredited policy of probing religious beliefs by test oaths or limiting public offices to persons who have, or perhaps more properly profess to have, a belief in some particular kind of religious concept.9

We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.' Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers,10 and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.11

In upholding the State's religious test for public office the highest court of Maryland said (223 Md. 49, 162 A.2d...

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