Amendment 4 asks Tennessee voters to strike ban on ministers serving in legislature
Atheists will still be barred under state law, though the U.S. Supreme Court superseded that position.
A violation of the Tennessee Constitution is pretty easy to spot at Nashville’s Lee Chapel AME any given Sunday.
“God has opened some doors for folks in here. God has made a way out of no way for some folks in here,” Pastor Harold Love Jr. tells congregants during a recent service. “God has healed some folks in here.”
Love has served as an ordained minister since 2002. And for the past decade, he’s also served in the Tennessee House of Representatives, despite Article IX, section 1 of the state’s founding document: “No minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.”
Two other sitting lawmakers — Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar and Sen. Page Walley, R-Bolivar — list minister as their profession, and others, including Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, have been ministers at other points in their careers.
None of them has anything to worry about.
The minister ban hasn’t been enforced in 40 years. So Tennessee voters are being asked to strike that language in Amendment 4 on their ballots.
The idea of the state’s founders was that the job of minister was too important to add on a part-time job in politics and that they “ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions,” the Tennessee Constitution states. The language is ripped nearly word for word from the 1777 New York Constitution, which was carried over from English Law. At least a dozen states had similar provisions, but only Tennessee’s remains.
For his part, Rep. Love, D-Nashville, says his two professions pair quite well.
“For me, I never had a conflict because my overriding decision-making process is: I don’t ever want to do harm to somebody by a bill that I vote for,” he says.
The atheist problem
Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, sponsored the amendment before voters now, saying during the legislative hearings it just “cleans up” the legalese. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ban in 1978 when a delegate to a state constitutional convention challenged her opponent’s standing since he was a Baptist minister.
But the lines immediately following the minister ban have also been deemed unconstitutional. They say that “no person who denies the being of God … shall hold any office.” Tennessee is one of eight states that still bars atheists from public service, though the Supreme Court has also superseded that provision.
And yet, there’s been no effort to cut the atheist lines from Tennessee’s constitution. When asked why not at a legislative hearing in 2021, Sen. Pody said cleaning up the constitution should be done “one simple step at a time.”
While not enforced, Azhar Majeed of the secular Center for Inquiry says it speaks volumes that voters are being asked to remove the ban on ministers and not atheists.
“If this is the way it’s going to be, it really calls into question whether atheists and other nonbelievers can get a fair shake and can be treated equally,” Majeed says.
The Center for Inquiry has supported removal of religious tests from state constitutions. But they’re a tough sell. A proposal in Democratic-led Maryland was withdrawn earlier this year. While being a minister and lawmaker might raise a few eyebrows, being godless can still be political heresy.