Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)

Torcaso involved a challenge to a Maryland statute requiring that a candidate for public office declare a belief in God to be eligible for the position. Such a test oath violated Article VI of the Constitution which states: No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The Court’s decision by Justice Black traced the abuse of test oaths throughout English and colonial American history, explaining why the prohibition of test oaths was in the Constitution itself:

“[T]here is much historical precedent for such laws. Indeed, it was largely to escape religious test oaths and declarations that a great many of the early colonists left Europe and came here hoping to worship in their own way. It soon developed, however, that many of those who had fled to escape religious test oaths turned out to be perfectly willing, when they had the power to do so, to force dissenters from their faith to take test oaths in conformity with that faith. … The effect of all this was the formal or practical ‘establishment’ of particular religious faiths in most of the Colonies, with consequent burdens imposed on the free exercise of the faiths of nonfavored believers.”

As Justice Black explained, in reaction to the use of test oaths in some of the colonies, the founders prohibited use of test oaths as a condition to hold any federal office. The problem in Torcaso was the oath was instituted by the State of Maryland, which claimed that Article VI did not apply to the states. The Court thus turned to the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses as a basis to declare the Maryland statute unconstitutional, citing the Cantwell case as precedent.