Ballot initiatives in Tennessee and West Virginia place archaic laws restricting religion on the chopping block, Arkansans to vote on Religious Freedom Amendment
Is it too early to look ahead to November?
A fascinating piece in Christianity Today dives into a ballot initiative scheduled to come before Tennessee voters. The measure repeals a provision in the state constitution that bars members of the clergy from serving in the legislature. You may be asking yourself: Can a state do that? Prohibit members of the clergy from being state senators and representatives? No, of course not! It’s flatly unconstitutional. But – like many states – Tennessee’s original constitution included the ban, and it has stayed on the books despite being unenforceable.
Sensibly, State Senator Mark Pody has introduced a ballot referendum to remove it. Not so sensible is his rationale:
Pody believes “Our fore fathers founded this nation on Christian biblical values.” It’s one of the five core issues he lists on his website. “I adhere to such principles,” he writes.
But when he was asked why Tennessee’s forefathers barred Christian ministers from becoming lawmakers when they founded the state in 1796, Pody didn’t have an answer.
“That’s a great question,” he told the Chattanooga Free Times Press. “I don’t know the back story or why they put it in originally.”
America was not founded as a “Christian nation” or on biblical values. The reason to oppose the clergy ban has nothing to do with granting privilege to any single faith but to ensure the right of all qualified Tennesseans to seek elected office without regard to their religious stature or their religious faith. In short, the ban was flawed because of religious freedom, not religious favoritism. That is why, as the article explains, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 ruled it unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that Tennessee was making the ability to exercise a civil right—the right to run for office—conditional on the surrender of a religious right, the right to be a minister. Seven justices signed on to the opinion and one abstained, giving McDaniel a unanimous 8–0 victory.
Voters will have the chance to excise the unlawful measure in November.
Meanwhile in West Virginia, voters will have the opportunity to erase from their state constitution an archaic provision unique to West Virginia that bars churches and religious denominations from being incorporated. The ACLU of West Virginia is a supporter of the amendment:
This provision…discriminates against religious institutions by denying them the same opportunities as similar but secular institutions. The ban violates the U.S. Constitution.
The state must never give preference to any particular religion, and it must never give preference to religion over non-religion. By the same token, it should not be favoring non-religious entities over similar religious entities. And that’s exactly what Article 6, Section 47 of our state constitution does.
Lastly, in Arkansas, voters will vote on whether to amend the state’s constitution by adding language modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law would bar government from posing a substantial burden to religious free exercise unless the burden is necessary to further a compelling state interest.