The Tennessee State Constitution has a section in it that specifically lists who’s not allowed to hold elected office. You may be familiar with that because here’s Article IX, Section 2:
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.
It’s the infamous section that says atheists can’t hold public office. (Six other state constitutions have similar language.)
Thankfully, that whole section is enforceable, due to the 1961 Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins, but still: That’s what the State Constitution says. Even after that SCOTUS decision, it remained on the books, a vestigial reminder of a more intolerant past.
The reason that section still exists on paper is because there’s a process for amending the state constitution that requires more than a Supreme Court ruling. Lawmakers would need 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, and — let’s face it — the Republican majority running Tennessee’s government isn’t really eager to clean up their Constitution to help out atheists.
But here’s where it gets interesting: Section 3 of that same Article says people who have fought duels (or helped someone fight a duel) can’t hold office either. That’s also messed up and wildly out-of-date.
Section 1 is equally bizarre. It says anyone who’s a church leader is barred from office because it might distract them from 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.
I don’t think I need to burn my Atheist Membership Card to say that shouldn’t be there either. It’s also unenforceable due to a separate Supreme Court case, but just like the anti-atheist section, it takes work to remove that passage from the state’s constitution.
Well, guess what?
Republicans in Tennessee are now taking the steps to remove Section 1 — and only Section 1 — from the Constitution. They want to clean the important document of the anti-priest language… while just side-stepping the anti-atheist language.
Senate Joint Resolution 55, sponsored by State Senator Mark Pody, would amend the Constitution by eliminating Section 1 if it passes through the legislature and has the support of the majority of voters in the 2022 general election.
On its own, the resolution is sensible. I’ll say it again: That part of the Tennessee Constitution should be eliminated. If a pastor wants to run for office, that’s fine. (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 their faith or ignoring church/state separation would be, but that’s a separate issue. The two do not necessarily overlap.
Here’s what I don’t get. (Or maybe I do.) If Tennessee lawmakers are going through all the trouble of getting rid of an archaic section of their Constitution — because they should — why not just get rid of that entire Article?
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 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’re deliberately choosing not to.
During last week’s senate committee hearing, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, questioned why Pody wasn’t addressing other provisions in the Tennessee Constitution that have been rendered unconstitutional.
“If we’re going to do that, should we just clean up everything that’s currently [unconstitutional] in the Tennessee Constitution? We have numerous provisions that can be deleted. Seems like that would be a more sensible way of doing it and putting it in one resolution.”
Pody said in response “that is a thought,” but he said “one simple step at a time” would be best. Committee Chairman Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, said legislative attorneys told him the resolution can’t be amended.
What a pathetic dismissal. Even if the current resolution can’t be amended, it could easily have been fixed from the outset if Pody cared. He 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 to ever move on to step two.
I’m not surprised that Mark Pody would do this. 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 and what will best help the people in his state. But the Senate Judiciary Committee as well as the Senate State & Local Government Committee both approved this resolution unanimously. It could be voted on in the State Senate this week and move on from there.
Ultimately, this whole resolution is symbolic more than anything else because we know those parts of the 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. But Tennessee lawmakers have decided to keep the part barring atheists from holding elected office while getting rid of the part limiting the participation of preachers.
I know there are a lot of examples to choose from, but what 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. But they did anyway. It would’ve cost them nothing to say let’s just get rid of sections 1 AND 2… but no. They decided to just play to their Christian base.
Pody did not respond to a request for comment last night.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)