Councilman under fire for atheism


When Cecil Bothwell took the oath of office as a city councilman this month, he did not swear to uphold the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions “so help me God.” He merely affirmed that he would, without mentioning the Almighty. Nor did the political newcomer place his hand on a Bible. He simply kept it at his side.

Bothwell, you see, is an atheist -- or as he often describes himself, a “post-theist.” And that has outraged some in this picturesque mountain resort who say Bothwell violated an obscure clause in the state constitution that disqualifies from elected office “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

A conservative group has distributed pamphlets warning locals that Bothwell is “Satan’s helper” and a “radical extremist” who is “bashing religion.” A supporter of Southern heritage has threatened to sue Asheville for allowing Bothwell to take office.

The controversy has lighted up talk-radio phone lines nationwide and prompted hundreds of calls and e-mails to Bothwell, a soft-spoken environmentalist who lived for 21 years in a house -- which he built himself -- that relied on solar power and a gravity-fed water system.

“I didn’t anticipate all this attention,” Bothwell said last week, after presiding at his first City Council meeting. “I haven’t even done anything yet.”

Raised a Presbyterian, Bothwell began questioning Christian beliefs as a young man. He’s a member of the Unitarian Universalist church, which includes atheists and agnostics as well as believers in God.

H.K. Edgerton, a former local NAACP president who has paraded wearing a Confederate Army uniform and waving a Confederate flag, said his lawyer was preparing a lawsuit against Asheville.

“If you’re an atheist and don’t believe in God and still want to hold office, I have a problem with that,” Edgerton said. “And the constitution of North Carolina has a problem with that.”

Asheville City Atty. Robert W. Oast Jr. declined to comment on what action the city would take if Edgerton follows through with his plan to sue.

Six other states have provisions outlawing atheists in public office. The North Carolina clause was in the state constitution when it was drafted in 1868. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that states were prohibited under the U.S. Constitution from requiring a religious test to serve in office. The court ruled in favor of an atheist in Maryland seeking to serve as a notary public.

But David Morgan, editor of the Asheville Tribune, a conservative weekly, said the issue was not the separation of church and state. It was a matter of honoring the state constitution.

“If you don’t like it, amend it and take out that clause. But don’t just pick and choose what parts you’re going to obey,” Morgan said. “This is serious business. I mean, the belief in God is not exactly a quirk.”

In an editorial, Morgan wrote of Bothwell: “He is taking an oath he obviously doesn’t believe in.”

Oast, however, pointed out that the state’s general statutes permit officeholders “with conscientious scruples against taking an oath” to affirm, rather than swear, their oath of office -- without being required to say “so help me God.”

As for Bothwell, he says his atheism is irrelevant to his duties as a councilman.

“I don’t find any need in my day-to-day life for God to explain things to me,” he said. “When religion gets tangled up with government, it always causes problems.”

And while his fellow council members are “bemused” by the whole affair, Bothwell said, he’s not worried about being forced from office. He said the controversy was manufactured by political opponents “who don’t want to see a progressive on the council.”

Bothwell ran on a platform of energy conservation, government transparency and campaign finance reform. But what really upset his opponents, he said, was his book “The Prince of War,” which is highly critical of the Rev. Billy Graham, who lives outside Asheville.

Another newly elected council member who took the oath this month, Esther Manheimer, did so with her hand on two sacred Jewish texts: the Pentateuch and the haphtara. She replied, “I do,” to an oath that included the phrase “so help you God.” Bothwell merely promised his “solemn affirmation.”

Manheimer, a lawyer, said the clause banning nonbelievers is unconstitutional. “Mr. Bothwell, therefore, is entitled to hold office to the same extent I am,” she said in an e-mail.

Last week, the first City Council meeting for new members opened with a prayer. There was no mention of God -- only a plea for “justice and peace” and for the safety of U.S. troops overseas.

The council rotates responsibility for the opening prayer. Bothwell said he doesn’t object, although he would prefer a moment of silence.

When his turn comes, he said, he may read from Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” or Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”

Bothwell predicted that the furor would pass, allowing him to focus on political objectives, which include retrofitting businesses and homes to reduce energy consumption. That’s what many voters who elected him want, he said.

After nearly three decades in this eclectic city in the southern Appalachian Mountains, he said, his progressive -- and sometimes contrarian -- views are well-known.

“We have a lot of characters in town,” Bothwell said. “And I may be one of them.”