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Roy Torcaso, 96; atheist won fight over state oath

June 26, 2007|From the Washington Post

Roy R. Torcaso, whose application to be a Maryland notary public led to a U.S. Supreme Court case that affirmed his refusal to take a state oath requiring him to declare a belief in God, died June 9 at an assisted-living home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 96 and had complications of prostate cancer.

Torcaso, who said he was an atheist, was a bookkeeper by profession. He worked for a Bethesda, Md., construction company when his legal challenge started in 1959. He had been urged by his boss to become a notary public.

At the Montgomery County, Md., Circuit Court, he refused to swear to a state oath given to notaries public that made them profess the existence of God.

"The point at issue," he said at the time, "is not whether I believe in a Supreme Being but whether the state has a right to inquire into my beliefs."

The state disqualified him and barred his commission. The Maryland courts upheld the state Constitution on the basis that Torcaso had not been compelled to pursue the notary public designation.

In a case that became known as Torcaso vs. Watkins -- Clayton Watkins was the Montgomery County Circuit Court clerk who administered the oath -- the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Torcaso's favor in June 1961.

The court said Maryland's test for public office "unconstitutionally invades [Torcaso's] freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from infringement by the States."

Writing for the court, Associate Justice Hugo Black said neither the state nor the federal government "can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.'

"Neither can [they] constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs," Black wrote.

That August, Torcaso became a notary public after swearing to uphold the laws of the state and the U.S. Constitution. Religious belief was not mentioned.

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