Thank You, Mr. Baltimore

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Every County Council meeting I’ve attended, there he is: Mr. Baltimore. Despite an hour-long commute each way, he never misses a Monday. He’s always there, ready to share with the Anne Arundel County Council his Baltimorean thoughts.

As a student of the Institute of the Constitution, his thoughts often revolve around Councilman Peroutka (District 5), who founded that Institute. Both Mr. Baltimore and Councilman Petroutka are interested in how the councilman can enact laws from a Christian viewpoint. It is with this specialized knowledge base that Mr. Baltimore brought to my attention the Maryland Constitution.

The religious amendments 36, 37, and 39 of the Maryland Constitution were initially written in the context of an intentional Christian state. The state was founded as a refuge for Roman Catholics and Protestants, in contrast to the “Savages, having no knowledge of the Divine Being,” according to Lord Baltimore. When divisions arose, Maryland passed a Toleration Act in 1649 for tolerance of Trinitarian Christians. This was a precursor to the first amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Maryland also codified into the 1776 version of the state constitution special money allocated just for the clergy of the Church of England.

Yet, these religious amendments also provided additional rules for Jews and Quakers in the early drafts. The question of oaths arose in cases where people of other faiths were being sworn in as witnesses or government appointees. Quakers were permitted not to partake in legal proceedings under oath. For Jews, the 1851 version of the 37th amendment states that “if the party shall profess to be a Jew, the declaration shall be in his belief in a future state of rewards and
punishments.”

It wasn’t until the fourth version of the constitution and an amendment in 1970 that Maryland passed its own establishment clause, reminiscent of the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution. This state establishment clause similarly bans the creation of a single state religion—such as the Church of England, Protestantism, Baha’i, Hinduism, and so on.

I am very thankful for this clause. It means that if you believe in a different religion than does Mr. Peroutka, or if you espouse a different version of Christianity, or if you are not religious at all, he cannot legislate in a way that forces you to follow only his spiritual interpretation. Mr. Peroutka cannot establish his version of Christianity as a state religion that is codified into law. We are protected from that.

Furthermore, neither he nor anyone else can require that a person ascribe to his religion or hold any spiritual beliefs in order to hold public office. There is text in article 36 of the Maryland Constitution that would imply that a belief in God is a requirement, stating, “nor shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God.”

However, thankfully, that very text was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The case was Torcaso v. Watkins in 1961, and Torcaso brought the case after being told that he couldn’t be a notary public without a belief in God. The court unanimously decided that requiring a belief in God violated the 1st and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

So thank you, Mr. Baltimore. By coming all the way to Anne Arundel County, you brought to my attention the recently added establishment clause in the state constitution. I had no idea that I needed to be thankful for it, and I had taken it for granted. But thankful I am.

Rebecca Forte is a concerned citizen living in Severna Park.

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