September 15, 2012

God and the Pennsylvania Constitution

The United States of America has a completely secular Constitution, but the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cannot say the same. I only just became aware of this fact, even though I have been a resident of Pennsylvania for more than a quarter of a century. (All quotations in this post are taken from the Duquesne University School of Law Web pages on the Pennsylvania constitution, found here.)

In particular, I discovered that Article I, Section 4, “Religion,” states
[That the general, great and essential principles of liberty and free government may be recognized and unalterably established, WE DECLARE THAT] No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.
Pennsylvania seal
Implicit in this provision is that one may be disqualified from holding an office or place of trust or profit in Pennsylvania if one does not acknowledge (1) God, (2) heaven, and (3) hell. I doubt this section of the constitution is strictly enforced, but were it to be so, even some Christians might be disqualified as unfit for public office. Nor do I know if the provision has ever been challenged in court. It is clearly unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The Pennsylvania constitution has been completely revised a number of times, and the quotation above is taken from the latest version, that of 1968, which begins with this Preamble:
WE, the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance, do ordain and establish this Constitution.
God is mentioned only one other time in the constitution, namely, in Article I, Section 3, “Religious Freedom”:
[That the general, great and essential principles of liberty and free government may be recognized and unalterably established, WE DECLARE THAT] All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.
I think that this sections conveys the right not to worship God, but I’m not completely sure. Thus, I deem Section 3 acceptable, but not Section 4. Notice, however, that Section 3 speaks of “All men,” whereas Section 4 refers to “No person,” an odd inconsistency.

Not surprisingly, Article I, Section 4 is a holdover from earlier versions of the constitution. Except for its title, the section is identical to the 1874 constitution. Article I, Section 4 in that version is titled “Religious opinions not to disqualify for holding office,” which is more generous than the provision itself.

The previous constitution, that of 1838, has a rather generic preamble, though one not tagged with that name and one that does not mention God:

WE, The People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Ordain and Establish this Constitution for its Government.
Provisions of this constitution are ordered differently from the versions that followed. Article IX, Sections III and IV are essentially the same as the corresponding sections of the current Article I. (Punctuation differs slightly.) Article IX, Section IV is simply titled “Religion.”

Article IX, Sections III and IV are virtually the same in the 1838 constitution as in the 1790 constitution. In that document, however, Section IV is titled “Of a disqualification on account of religion,” which seem more seriously exclusionary.

In the first post-colonial constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that of 1776, we see the precursors of the current Sections 3 and 4 of Article I. Chapter I is labeled “A DECLARATION of the RIGHTS of the Inhabitants of the State of Pennsylvania.” Its untitled Section II is the following:
That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul [sic], the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.
It is interesting that this section uses the word “unalienable.” That word, of course, appears in the Declaration of Independence, which was published days before the writing of the Pennsylvania constitution began in Philadelphia. In subsequent versions of the constitution, the synonym—though now less familiar—“indefeasible” is used.

Chapter I, Section II provides protections for men acknowledging God, but does not require a belief in heaven or hell. Chapter II, Section 10 injects religion into governance more obtrusively, however:
A quorum of the house of representatives shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number members elected; and having met and chosen their speaker, shall each of them before they proceed to business take and subscribe, as well the oath or affirmation of fidelity and allegiance herein after directed, as the following oath or affirmation, viz.

I ___________ do swear (or affirm) that as a member of this assembly, I will not propose or assent to any bill, vote or resolution, which shall appear to me injurious to the people; nor do or consent to any act or thing whatever, that shall have a tendency to lessen or abridge their rights and privileges, as declared in the constitution of this state; but will in all things conduct myself as a faithful honest representative and guardian of the people, according to the best of my judgment and abilities.

And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.

I do believe in one God, the Creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state.
The oath required of representatives—the constitution established a unicameral legislature—is clearly intended to exclude non-Christian legislators. This oath disappears in the 1790 constitution, which introduced a bicameral legislature:
Members of the General Assembly, and all officers, executive and judicial, shall be bound, by oath or affirmation, to support the constitution of this commonwealth, and to perform the duties of their respective offices with fidelity. [Article VIII]
No doubt, the elimination of the overtly Christian oath of office was influenced by the same spirit that led to the First Amendment, which had been proposed, but not put into effect in 1790. Unfortunately, the prejudice against non-Christians found its way, as we have seen, into Article IX, Section IV, a provision essentially unchanged in the current Article I, Section 4.

It is unlikely that an amendment to Article I, Section 4 will ever be proposed, but, from time to time, the possibility of revising the entire Pennsylvania constitution has been raised. When next such a revision takes place, references to God and the preference afforded Christians should be expunged from the document.


  1. Maybe I am reading it wrong (referring to section 4 of Article one) but I interpret it to mean that everyone is qualified and emphasis is given that an applicant cannot be denied on the admission of his/her beliefs. In other words, no one should be disqualified to hold office soley on the basis of their religious beliefs. I guess I am having a hard time seing this as anti-secular or anti-atheist.

    1. I don’t think so. It says that a person who acknowledges (1) God and (2) a state of future rewards and punishments, irrespective of his [sic] other beliefs, cannot be disqualified etc., etc. No such guarantee is offered to a person who either does not acknowledge God or who does not believe in a state of future rewards and punishments.


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