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Lawsuit threatened for atheist official

Cecil Bothwell took the oath of office in Asheville, N.C. Cecil Bothwell took the oath of office in Asheville, N.C. (Associated Press)
Associated Press / December 12, 2009

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RALEIGH, N.C. - Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water, and reforming government - but he doesn’t believe in God. His political opponents say that’s a sin that makes him unworthy of serving in office, and they’ve got the North Carolina Constitution on their side.

Bothwell’s detractors are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in, even though the state’s antiquated requirement that officeholders believe in God is unenforceable because it violates the US Constitution.

“The question of whether or not God exists is not particularly interesting to me and it’s certainly not relevant to public office,’’ the recently elected 59-year-old said.

Raised a Presbyterian, Bothwell began questioning Christian beliefs at a young age and considered himself an atheist by the time he was 20. He’s an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville and he still celebrates Christmas, often hanging ornaments on his Fishhook cactus.

Bothwell ran this fall on a platform that also included limiting the height of downtown buildings and saving trees in the city’s core. When Bothwell was sworn into office on Monday, he used an alternative oath that doesn’t require officials to swear on a Bible or reference “Almighty God.’’