For six months I’ve posted regular commentary on North Carolina’s economy and its evolving laws and developments related to local government, zoning, general land use and the environment.

             Today I’d like to talk about . . . God.

             Follow me here.  There’s a segue.

             Cecil Bothwell was sworn in last month as a new Asheville City Council member. By all accounts, he’s educated, informed, competent and likeable.  But he doesn’t profess to believe in God, and that is what some Asheville voters claim eliminates his right to serve in public office and further denies the rights of fellow citizens to choose him as their representative.

             They are correct when they assert that an existing law forbids Bothwell’s right to be sworn in.  North Carolina Constitution Article VI, § 8 states “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”  Even the North Carolina Religious Liberty Clause provides no help, granting citizens the liberty to worship God as they choose, but not the liberty to choose not to worship or believe in God at all (Article I, § 13). 

             The clarity of the state constitution on this point means that a lawsuit could not be dismissed on the pleadings or for failure to state a claim.  That’s lawyer jargon that means plaintiffs can get a hall pass from the courthouse door to the counsel’s table in the courtroom.  But a judge who follows established legal precedent should not let a religious test for public office get far.  The United State Supreme Court settled this matter 48 years ago in Torcaso v. Watkins.

             What the potential plaintiffs fail to realize is that the legal issue is not whether Mr. Bothwell should believe in God. That’s a theological question that we don’t turn to politicians or courts to answer.  The legal issue is whether we have ever granted to our government the ability to define and control our rights as citizens according to our religious beliefs – or lack thereof.  And serving in elected office is an inherent right of citizenship.

             We establish governments for many purposes, but deciding for us what we should believe about God or whether we are required to believe in God at all is not one of them.  Some things are none of government’s business.

             In almost 25 years practicing law I have appeared before elected and appointed bodies and agencies in more than 100 cities, towns and counties from Hyde, Currituck and Brunswick Counties in the east to Jackson County in the west on matters related to sewer lines, heights of cell towers, traffic mitigation, building setbacks, floodplains, bonds, signage regulations, stream buffers, airport overlays, water rights, marina permitting, water allocation, landfills, development densities and asphalt plant permits, just to start the list.

             If a board member’s belief or lack of belief in the “being of Almighty God” has been germane to a single issue I never realized it.

             But if we were serious about establishing constitutional limitations on qualifications for public office, we should make the limitations relevant. For example, I would disqualify for office any elected official who never felt constrained when making expenditures from the public’s purse or who habitually spoke to other board members in rude and uncivilized tones.

             Better yet, perhaps we could disqualify any citizen from returning to local public office if after their first term they have not learned the precepts of local government finance, the basic elements of sewer and road systems or the rationales for protecting water supplies and other natural resources.

             Someone who ascends to public office becomes a fiduciary for the well being of other citizens, and part of that fiduciary obligation is the duty to become educated about governmental services, how we pay for them, and the many issues each community faces year in and year out.

             Fortunately, the city council member or county commissioner who chooses to govern in ignorance is the exception.  Learning curves are longer for some than others, but most elected officials work diligently to erase knowledge deficits.  Unfortunately, the exceptions often are controlling votes on vital issues, and disqualifying them from holding elected office is only a playful fantasy. 

             After all, democracy is imperfect because we are imperfect.  And when I speak of “perfection,” of course, it is in a non-theological sense.

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Tom Terrell

Terrell_TomMr. Terrell is widely regarded as one of North Carolina’s leading land use attorneys, representing both private and governmental entities in matters related to real estate development. His practice “footprint” covers the state from the mountain counties to the coast and occasionally includes…

Terrell_TomMr. Terrell is widely regarded as one of North Carolina’s leading land use attorneys, representing both private and governmental entities in matters related to real estate development. His practice “footprint” covers the state from the mountain counties to the coast and occasionally includes parts of Virginia and South Carolina. His many clients are involved in commercial and residential real estate, solid waste hauling and disposal, telecommunications, quarries/asphalt and miscellaneous litigation related to permit denials, vested rights and rezonings.

He has published numerous articles and speaks regularly to legal, governmental and business groups on a variety of issues related to land use and zoning.

Mr. Terrell has served as a leader in numerous civic and legal endeavors, including Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the N.C. State Health Plan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Winston-Salem State University, and service on the Board of Directors of the UNC-CH General Alumni Association, Board of Directors of the High Point Chamber of Commerce, Board of Visitors of Guilford College and Board of Center Associates of the Center for Creative Leadership, and as a founding member of the N.C. Bar Association Zoning, Planning and Land Use Section.

More information can be found at

Mr. Terrell can be contacted at