Tennessee is on the verge of eliminating a discriminatory, archaic part of its State Constitution that forbids pastors from holding elected office… but state officials are purposely not getting rid of a similar ban on atheists in government.
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
(Six other state constitutions have similar language.)
The good news is that the entire section is enforceable due to the 1961 Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins. Still. it’s bizarre that the ban on atheists in government still remains on the books even after that Supreme Court decision. It’s a vestigial reminder of a more intolerant past.
But there’s a reason it’s still there: The process for amending the State Constitution requires more than a Supreme Court ruling. Lawmakers would have to pass a resolution over two consecutive sessions to get rid of that section, and then voters would need to support that move in a future election.
Those are a lot of obstacles! It takes time! And the Republican majority running Tennessee’s government isn’t exactly eager to clean up their Constitution in order to destigmatize atheism.
It’s not just that section of the Constitution that makes no sense, though. Section 3 of that same Article says people who have fought duels (or helped someone fight a duel) can’t hold office either.
Section 1 is equally bizarre. It says anyone who’s a church leader is barred from office because it might distract them from what’s obviously more important work:
Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.
A dozen other states used to have similar language in their constitutions, but all of them got rid of those statutes a long time ago. Tennessee is the only one where it’s still in writing. For what it’s worth, that section is also unenforceable due to a separate Supreme Court case from 1978, and there are a handful of legislators in Tennessee right now who are also pastors. They may be bad politicians, but there’s no reason they should be forbidden from running or holding office on account of their day jobs.
All three of those laws—banning pastors, atheists, and duel participants—should be removed from the Tennessee Constitution. Obviously. None of those rules are even in effect anymore! (Okay, maybe the duel one is technically still in play, but the Ghost of Alexander Hamilton hasn’t run for office in a while.)
But in order to eliminate all of those sections, the legislature would have to overcome all those hurdles I mentioned earlier.
A few years ago, Republicans in the Tennessee legislature finally decided to fix the problem. They knew it would take time to complete all the steps, but they figured they should get the ball rolling.
Unfortunately, because we’re talking about conservatives in Tennessee, they decided they would only try to eliminate Section 1 from the Constitution, the part with the language barring pastors from political power… while leaving in place the anti-atheist and anti-duel language.
In 2019, State Senator Mark Pody sponsored SJR 178, to “remove Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution of Tennessee.” It passed without controversy in 2020.
In 2021, Pody did it again, sponsoring SJR 55. That bill also passed through the legislature without a problem. The legislative hurdles were completed.
Today, Tennessee voters will finally get to weigh in on the pastors-in-power matter (and complete the final step in the process to change the Constitution) when they vote on Amendment 4. That question asks, “Shall Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution of Tennessee be amended by deleting the section?” If a majority of people say yes, and if that majority is “greater than 50% of all the votes cast in the governor’s election,” then that injustice will finally become a relic of history.
That would be good news.
It just wouldn’t be enough good news.
On its own, the Amendment shouldn’t be controversial because it’s asking a question with a simple answer. If a pastor wants to run for office, that should be legal! (Hell, just look at Senator Raphael Warnock, the Georgia senator who is still serving as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.) Having church leaders in office isn’t a problem. Legislating on the basis faith or ignoring church/state separation would be, but that’s a separate issue. The two do not necessarily overlap.
What’s frustrating is that Tennessee lawmakers have done all this work… while completely sidestepping the rest of Article IX. They could have gotten rid of all the silly bans at once. Instead, they’re only getting rid of the part that discriminates against Christians.
It’s the height of Christian privilege for a lawmaker to eliminate a(n unenforceable) law banning priests from holding office… while keeping the (also unenforceable) law that bans atheists and duelers from the exact same thing… even though they’re literally right next to each other in the document. It would have taken no additional work to get rid of that part. They deliberately chose to narrow their efforts.
Pody has responded to that criticism by saying he just wanted to go “one simple step at a time.”
It was a pathetic dismissal when he first made it years ago, and it deserves renewed attention now. Even if the Amendment in front of voters can’t be changed, it could easily have been fixed from the outset if Pody cared. He didn’t. He still doesn’t. That’s the problem. Saying we need to go “one simple step at a time” is a very convenient excuse when your religion is the beneficiary of step one and you have no intention of ever moving on to step two.
None of this is surprising coming from Mark Pody. He’s previously sponsored legislation to make the Holy Bible the “official state book.” He’s filed bills to reject marriage equality and ban abortions early in a pregnancy. He’s also filed a bill that would require a woman seeking an abortion to have her father’s permission… even if her father is the one who impregnated her.
He’s a Christian Nationalist in every sense of the word. The Bible guides his decision-making, not the Constitution or what will best help the people in his state.
Ultimately, this whole process is symbolic more than anything else because we know those parts of the State Constitution are effectively worthless. But symbols can perpetuate stigmas. The right thing to do here would be to eliminate all of those sections barring people from holding office on the basis of their religious views or positions (or desire to duel).
It’s a perfect example of how a Republican majority in state or federal government opposes equality under the law. They didn’t have to do it this way. They did anyway. It would’ve cost them nothing to say let’s just get rid of Article IX entirely… but nope. They were only thinking about their Christian base and no one else.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)