To someone passionately devoted to the belief in God and Christianity, the thought of having one’s city governed by non-believers may be repulsive. Unfortunately for the sensitivities of those facing this dilemma, the founders of the United States of America were quite specific about the irrelevance of religious belief to civic participation and the rights of citizenship. That may not stop some self-righteous political opponents of Ashville, N.C. City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who says he doesn’t believe in God but who was duly elected in November, from trying to sue the city for its failure to abide by an archaic, and undeniably unconstitutional, state law forbidding atheists from holding office.
Their threatened lawsuit has no chance of being successful because it the law is unenforceable, one reason why North Carolina, like six other states with similar prohibitions, has never bothered to repeal it. Still, the lawsuit could effectively harass the city and Mr. Bothwell, while costing tax-payer money to defend. Such an action would be without any ethical justification; it would be malicious, unfair, and would demonstrate blatant disrespect for both the principles and values of the United States and the electoral process.
One of those threatening the lawsuit is H. K. Edgerton, a local civil rights leader, who says, ““I’m a Christian man. I have problems with people who don’t believe in God.” That’s fine. Our system of government has a way to express those “problems”: it’s called “voting.” Beyond that, Edgerton’s ethical options are to accept the will of the electorate or to move. Suing the city based on a dead-letter law and an un-American limitation on office-holding is no more of an ethical option than taking Bothwell hostage. It just happens to be legal. He and his allies deserve to be condemned by the community.
More useful, however, would be to immediately file an ethics complaint against any shyster willing to bring such a frivolous lawsuit. North Carolina’s legal ethics rules, specifically Rule 3.1, prohibit lawyers from bringing frivolous actions when there can be no good faith belief that the action can succeed. I’d say suing a city for not enforcing a law both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution say is unenforceable qualifies as frivolous.
I wonder: will religious zealots ever comprehend that using unethical methods drives people away from religion, rather than towards it?