Politics can frequently devolve into absurdity, but the race for the Austin City Council seat in the newly-created District 4 has been remarkably absurd in ways, in fact, that highlight some of the weird things about the entire state of Texas. Or, at least, its constitution.
The race in question is a runoff election between two aspiring newcomers to Austin City Council: 51-year-old Laura Pressley and 25-year-old Gregorio Casar. Like many contentious campaigns, the candidates have taken to circulating mailers with information about themselves and their opponents. But a mailer from the Pressley campaign (seen above, photographed by a user on Austin’s Reddit page) highlighting the differences between the two candidates contains one very curious line-item.
Under “Faith,” Pressley notes that she possesses a “strong belief in God,” while claiming that Casar is a “self-admitted atheist.” According to the Austin American-Statesman, Pressley’s source for Casar’s “self-admission” is a paper that he wrote as an undergrad student:
Pressley cited a paper Casar wrote during his college years about discussing Russian literature with youth at a correctional center. In the paper, Casar described seeing one of his students as “a symbol of hope … And perhaps a vessel for the God I no longer believed in.”
As someone who’s on record saying he doesn’t believe in God, Casar can’t legally represent North Austin’s District 4 on the City Council, Pressley told the American-Statesman. Pressley pointed to a section of the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights that says there are no religious qualifications for holding public office, provided that the official “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
Pressley is correct that the language is in the Texas Constitution, but that doesn’t mean that an atheist—which, it’s worth reiterating, Casar says he is not—is actually barred from holding office in Texas. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, in the No Religious Test Clause, makes clear that restrictions like the one in Texas are unconstitutional.
All of which raises an important question: If that restriction is unconstitutional, what’s it doing in the Texas Constitution?
Texas isn’t the only state that has required officeholders to believe in a Supreme Being of some sort (whether it be the Judeo-Christian God, Zeus, a hodgepodge of cobbled-together bits of freshman-year philosophy, The Force, etc), but the requirement in Texas has never been successfully challenged in court, because no candidate has ever been denied the opportunity to serve because of it.
A challenge to the language did occur in the mid-eighties, when Madalyn Murray O’Hair contested the language with standing as a voter, but instead of striking it from the document, she and then-Attorney General Jim Mattox reached an agreement. As KUT Austin reported in 2008:
[O’Hair] and then-Attorney General Jim Mattox signed an agreement in federal court that contained this line:
The parties hereby agree that the last phrase, “… provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” is void and of no further effect in that it is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. […]
There are different opinions, though, about how much the clause affects candidates’ applications for state office. Mattox agreed on behalf of the state not to enforce it, but it has never been removed from the Texas Constitution. […]
Randall “Buck” Wood, an Austin elections attorney, insists that such a law could never be enforced. “If it were, it would be declared unconstitutional. We’ve had so many statutes in the Texas Constitution declared unconstitutional, but they’re still there. As long as nobody’s being injured by these, nobody brings a lawsuit, and they just sit there.”
It’s a little strange, admittedly, for the Texas Constitution to still have an obviously unenforceable, unconstitutional bit of language. And while it’s never received a legal challenge from a candidate, it is worth considering if, potentially, the fact that the unconstitutional language remains in place has some sort of chilling effect on otherwise-qualified atheist candidates who opt not to run (or sue) in the first place.
The Austin City Council runoff between Casar and Pressley won’t likely result in any sort of challenge, if for no other reason than the fact that Casar does not claim to be an atheist. But it does highlight both how absurd politics—especially local politics—can be, and how idiosyncratic a document our Texas Constitution is.
(image via Reddit)