NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Although not enforced for nearly 50 years, the Tennessee Constitution technically bars religious leaders from serving in the state legislature. But Tennessee voters will have a chance to change that this Election Day.
Article IX, Section 1 of the state constitution reads, “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.”
The measure was included as part of the original Tennessee Constitution when the state was formed in 1796 and remained in effect for nearly 200 years, until the 1970s, when a candidate for delegate to a state constitutional convention sued to prevent another delegate candidate, who was a Baptist minister, from running.
At that time, Tennessee was holding a limited constitutional convention and said citizens could run to be delegates if they also qualified to be members of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Paul McDaniel, a Baptist minister from Chattanooga, sought candidacy as a delegate. Another candidate, Selma Cash Paty, sued, stating McDaniel’s status as a minister prohibited him from running for delegate.
McDaniel initially won in State Chancery Court, which said the provision was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, but on appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed, stating the prohibition did not impose on the religious belief of any Tennessee citizen.
The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in 1978, the court unanimously ruled in favor of McDaniel, stating the state constitutional provision violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Since then, the provision has not been enforced, but it has remained in the state’s founding document.
On Election Day, Tennessee voters will have the opportunity to remove the section from the state constitution through Amendment 4.
Brought through the Tennessee General Assembly in 2021 by State Sen. Mark Pody (R – Lebanon) and Rep. Jay Reedy (R – Erin), the measure is meant to clean up overruled, old language to bring the constitution in line with current practice, Reedy told News 2.
“That’s all we’re attempting to do is clean it up,” he said. “Many states had the same language in their constitutions and took care of it when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. We’re kind of late getting it done.”
He also pointed out the Tennessee General Assembly has several faith leaders currently serving the people of Tennessee, one of whom has complaints about that very section of the constitution. Rep. Johnny Shaw (D – Bolivar), Rep. Harold Love (D – Nashville) and Rep. Jerry Sexton (R – Bean Station) have all represented their districts for several years, Reedy said, and Shaw is still challenged on the matter when he runs for reelection.
The joint resolution received near-unanimous support, with only one Nay vote from Rep. Jason Hodges (D – Clarksville).
“This is the least controversial issue on the ballot. The initiative has total bipartisan support,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie. “The issue was settled in 1978 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ban on clergy was unenforceable. Both Democrats and Republicans currently have pastors serving in the legislature, and I’m proud to serve with such distinguished lawmakers as Rev. Harold Love and Rev. Johnny Shaw. This amendment is simply house-cleaning, and I can’t understand why anyone would vote against it.”
The amendment is one of four on Tennesseans’ ballots this November. Other constitutional changes voters will consider this election include right to work language, a temporary line of succession for the governor and abolishing slavery language.