July 16, 2007 by

Roy Torcaso


Categories: Business, Law

Roy Reed Torcaso, a Maryland notary public who left his mark on constitutional law, died on June 9 from complications of prostate cancer. He was 96.
Born in Enumclaw, Wash., Torcaso was the son of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. Although raised to believe in a god, he became an atheist and remained a nonbeliever his entire adult life. This decision proved to be a hindrance in his future professional endeavors.
Torcaso was in his 30s when he enlisted in the Army. He spent World War II in England and was reactivated for duty during the Korean conflict. Upon his return to the states, Torcaso became a bookkeeper for a construction company in Bethesda, Md. When his boss encouraged him to became a notary public in 1959, he completed the required documentation and went down to the Montgomery County Circuit Court to take the oath of office.
There Torcaso’s application was blocked by a clerk named Clayton Watkins, all because he refused to declare a belief in a god. At the time, Article 37 of Maryland’s constitution stated that “no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.” Since Torcaso refused to do so, Watkins disqualified him as a notary. He responded by taking the state to court.
Over the next two years, Torcaso received legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress, however the Maryland courts ruled against Torcaso, saying his rights were not infringed because no one had forced him to seek a notary public designation. He also became a target of harassment. He received several antagonistic phone calls, one calling him a “dirty Communist,” and another labeling him an “atheistic bum.” One caller even insulted Torcaso’s wife.
The case, Torcaso v. Watkins, eventually worked its way through the appellate courts and landed at the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1961, the justices unanimously ruled in Torcaso’s favor, saying the Maryland test for public office “cannot be enforced against [Torcaso], because it unconstitutionally invades his freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from infringement by the States.” Article VI of the U.S. Constitution bars religious tests for federal office. This ruling prohibited the states from using religious faith or a belief in a god as a criteria for assuming a public office.
Two months later, Torcaso received his commission as a notary public. During the oath, he vowed to uphold the laws of the state of Maryland and the federal Constitution, but he did not declare a belief in a deity or a pantheon of gods. His first assignment was to witness his daughter’s application to take an exam for a ham operator’s license.
Torcaso later worked a series of bookkeeping jobs and devoted much of his free time to civil rights. He served as the president of the Washington chapter of the American Humanist Association, and as the Washington-area president of The Hemlock Society, a right-to-die organization. He also became a humanist counselor, which allowed him to officiate at weddings.
Virginia only allows ordained ministers perform marriage services, thus blocking Torcaso — and other nonbelievers — from doing so. In response, he sued the state. Unlike his previous suit, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case in 1989.
“Roy Torcaso lived a full life and advanced religious and civil rights for all of us. I’m thankful that he had the guts to take a principled stand. I also look forward to the day when lawmakers … realize that it’s time to clear away the last vestiges of bigotry by officially removing those antiquated provisions from their constitutions,” Steve Benen said on his blog, The Carpetbagger Report.

2 Responses to Roy Torcaso

  1. Selma Goldberg

    I remember Roy as a passionate supporter of the right to die. I did not realize he died as we had been out of touch for several years. He was a treasure and I am grateful to have known him.

  2. Geoff Brandner

    What I can’t understand is why this fellow fought so hard to be a notary. After all being a notary is hardly renumerative unless you witness 2000 documents a week. It makes little sense to fight so hard for so little. I think this fellow just wanted attention thats all. Ye gads!!!

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