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Religion has entered the political fray in a race for an appellate court bench in East Texas. The Austin-based Republican Party of Texas played the religion card in a Sept. 21 online newsletter. As alleged in the newsletter, Texarkana solo E. Ben Franks, Democratic nominee for a seat on the 6th Court of Appeals, “is reported to be a professed atheist and apparently believes the Bible is “collection of myths.’” But Franks says he has never professed to be an atheist and is not a member of any atheist organization. Franks says no one with the Republican Party ever asked him whether he professes to be an atheist. However, he says he’s not surprised by the allegation. “I’m not surprised at anything anybody says in politics anymore,” Franks says. Anthony Champagne, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says he has watched judicial races in Texas and other parts of the country for 25 years and has never before seen a judicial candidate accused of being an atheist. “I’ve never seen the religious issue pushed that hard,” Champagne says. Champagne says the last time that religion was raised in a significant political race in Texas was the 1960 presidential election, in which the fact that then-Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy was a Catholic became an issue. “It was a very detrimental issue against Kennedy, until he spoke in Houston to the Baptist ministry,” Champagne says. In his address to Southern Baptist leaders, Kennedy spoke out against religious intolerance and told the audience, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish,” The New York Times reported on Sept. 13, 1960. The Republican Party notes in its recent newsletter that Article 16, �1(a) of the Texas Constitution prescribes the oath of office for all elected or appointed officials. The officeholder swears to faithfully execute the duties of the office and, to the best of his or her ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state “so help me God.” “I can take the oath,” Franks says. However, the state Republican Party questions whether Franks will uphold the law, stating in the newsletter: “Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch “atheist’ belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas.” Marshall solo Bailey C. Moseley, Franks’ Republican opponent for the seat being vacated by 6th Court Justice Donald Ross, a Democrat, says he thinks an atheist can take the oath and is bound to support the laws and Constitution of Texas. Moseley also says he doesn’t know whether he will raise the atheism issue in the campaign. “I think it’s pertinent,” Moseley says of the allegation. “In East Texas, a person’s core beliefs are important.” Franks says he’s not bothered by the allegation. “I’m very much an advocate for separation of church and state,” Franks says. “In that context, it offends me when people wear their religion on their sleeves.” But, Franks adds, “my religious preferences are my private business. That’s not the business of anybody else.” No religious test The Republican Party’s allegation that Franks is an atheist stems from a June 18, 2002, article published in the El Paso Times, after the Texas Democratic Party held its state convention in the far West Texas city. As noted in the article, Democrats on the party’s platform committee debated whether to drop “God” from a sentence on the first page of the committee’s platform report that read: “We want a Texas where all people can fulfill their dreams and achieve their God-given potential.” The article quotes Franks, a member of the platform committee, as saying, “I’m an atheist, [and] this does not bother me. I’m a pragmatist.” Franks says the article misquoted him and what he said was, “Let’s say I’m an atheist. I still have no problem with this platform, because I’m a pragmatist.” What he was saying, Franks says, is that, if he were an atheist, he would not be offended by the reference to God in the platform. But Jeff Fisher, the state Republican Party’s executive director, says there are other sources of the allegation. Fisher says “some people who know Franks” � people whom Fisher did not identify � have told him that Franks professes to be an atheist. Fisher says the GOP sent the newsletter to people who subscribe to the party’s e-mail publications to inform them about Franks. “We have a candidate running for the 6th Court who clearly shows he’s out of touch with the people,” he says. Amber Moon, spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, says, “The Republican Party of Texas is questioning somebody else’s faith in order to win an election, and that’s completely out of line.” Moon also says she thinks it’s inappropriate for the Republican Party’s executive director, who is a political operative, to pass judgment on another person’s faith. Officially, however, there can be no religious test for holding office. Charles W. “Rocky” Rhodes, an associate professor at South Texas College of Law, says the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a state cannot exclude somebody from office for his or her religious beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs. In 1961′s Torcaso v. Watkins, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down a Maryland Declaration of Rights requirement that a person seeking to hold office in Maryland declare a belief in the existence of God. Rhodes, who teaches constitutional law, says Torcaso applies to Article 1, �4 of the Texas Constitution, which provides that no one can be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided that he acknowledges “the existence of a Supreme Being.” Even if Franks was a professed atheist � and Franks says he has never professed to be an atheist � that is not a valid disqualification from office in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, Rhodes says. Referring to the Republicans’ allegation against Franks, Rhodes says, “What they’re trying to do is smear him.”

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