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Torcaso v. Watkins

Torcaso v. Watkins
Argued April 24, 1961
Decided June 19, 1961
Full case name Torcaso v. Watkins, Clerk
Citations 367 U.S. 488 (more)
81 S.Ct. 1680, 6 L.Ed.2d 982
Prior history Judgment for respondent, Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland; Judgment affirmed, Court of Appeals of Maryland, 223 Md. 49, 162 A. 2d 438 (1960)
Subsequent history Reversed and remanded
State governments cannot require a religious test for public office.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Black, joined by Warren, Douglas, Clark, Brennan, Whittaker, Stewart
Concurrence Frankfurter (in the result, no opinion)
Concurrence Harlan (in the result, no opinion)
Laws applied
U.S. Constitution Amendments I, XIV

Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) was a United States Supreme Court case in which the court reaffirmed that the United States Constitution prohibits States and the Federal Government from requiring any kind of religious test for public office, in the specific case, as a notary public.


  • Background 1
  • The Court's decision 2
  • Secular humanism as religion 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


In the early 1960s, the Governor of Maryland appointed Roy Torcaso (November 13, 1910 – June 9, 2007)[1] as a notary public. At the time, the Constitution of Maryland required "a declaration of belief in the existence of God" in order for a person to hold "any office of profit or trust in this State".[2]

Torcaso, an atheist, refused to make such a statement, and his appointment was consequently revoked. Torcaso, believing his constitutional rights to freedom of religious expression had been infringed, filed suit in a Maryland Circuit Court, only to be rebuffed. The Circuit Court rejected his claim, and the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the requirement in the Maryland Constitution for a declaration of belief in God as a qualification for office was self-executing[3] and did not require any implementing legislation to be enacted by the state legislature.

The Court of Appeals justified its decision thus:

The petitioner is not compelled to believe or disbelieve, under threat of punishment or other compulsion. True, unless he makes the declaration of belief, he cannot hold public office in Maryland, but he is not compelled to hold office.

Torcaso took the matter to the United States Supreme Court, where it was heard on April 24, 1961.

The Court's decision

The Court unanimously found that Maryland's requirement for a person holding public office to state a belief in God violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The Court had previously established in Everson v. Board of Education (1947):

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.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black recalled Everson v. Board of Education, and explicitly linked Torcaso v. Watkins to its conclusions:

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. ... 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, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.

Rebuffing the judgment of the Maryland Court of Appeals, Justice Black added: "The fact, however, that a person is not compelled to hold public office cannot possibly be an excuse for barring him from office by state-imposed criteria forbidden by the Constitution."

The Court did not base its holding on the no religious test clause of Article VI. In Footnote 1 of the opinion Justice Black wrote:

Appellant also claimed that the State's test oath requirement violates the provision of Art. VI of the Federal Constitution that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Because we are reversing the judgment on other grounds, we find it unnecessary to consider appellant's contention that this provision applies to state as well as federal offices.

The question of whether the no religious test clause binds the states remains unresolved. Given the Court's First Amendment holding, that issue is largely academic.

Secular humanism as religion

It has occasionally been argued that in Torcaso v. Watkins the Supreme Court "found" secular humanism to be a religion. This assertion is based on a reference, by Justice Black in footnote number 11 of the Court's finding, to court cases where organized groups of self-identified humanists, or ethicists, meeting on a regular basis to share and celebrate their beliefs, have been granted religious-based tax exemptions.

Justice Black's use of the term "secular humanism" in his footnote has been seized upon by some religious groups, such as those supporting causes such as teaching creationism in schools, as a "finding" that any secular or science-based activity is, in fact, religion.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Adam Bernstein (June 21, 2007), "Roy Torcaso, 96; Defeated Md. in 1961 Religious Freedom Case",  .
  2. ^ Constitution of Maryland, Article 37.
  3. ^ Jeffrey Lehman; Shirelle Phelps, eds. (2005), "Self-executing", West's Encyclopedia of American Law (2nd ed.), Detroit, Mich.:   (reproduced on
  4. ^ Matt Cherry; Molleen Matsumura (Winter 1997–1998), "10 Myths About Secular Humanism",  .

Further reading

  • Alley, Robert S. (1999), The Constitution & Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State, Amherst, N.Y.: .  
  • Boston, Rob (June 2011), "More than a Minor Hero: After 50 Years, Roy Torcaso's Supreme Court Win Still Affirms Religious Liberty For All", Church & State 64 (6): 7–8, 10 .

External links

  • Text of Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 

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