The Tennessee Senate yesterday passed House Joint Resolution 37, which aims to add one line to the Tennessee Constitution: “that liberties do not come from government, but from Almighty God.”
Needless to say, there really is no need for this constitutional amendment. The Tennessee Constitution is serving the state just fine. And, with 85 percent of Tennesseans identifying as believers in God, religion in the state appears to be doing just fine too.
In addition, this phrase isn’t even accurate. In the United States, our rights come from our secular governing documents – our state and federal constitutions and laws. Our rights do not come from the Bible or any other religious scripture or texts. And this amendment to the state constitution can’t change that. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and the separation of religion and government, which is enshrined in our Constitution, ensures that state and local governments may only enforce secular law.
Even if that weren’t true, enforcement would be a practical impossibility. The state would have to determine theological questions about what rights God granted and how they would change the rights that already exist in the Constitution. It would have to resolve theological conflicts and pick and choose which denominational beliefs would rule supreme. Religious concepts would trump laws adopted by the people. Such a scenario would be impossible to navigate in the real world and is the very problem our founders sought to prevent when they established the separation of church and state.
One has to wonder then why legislators would spend so much time and money on resolutions like HJR 37. In order to enact this proposal, the legislature will have to vote again next year and the people of Tennessee must vote on a referendum held in conjunction with a gubernatorial election (so, no earlier than 2020).
The answer is likely all about politics. It is an increasingly common tactic to put wedge issues like this on the ballot to drive out base voters. This proposal exploits and trivializes religion by turning it into nothing more than a cynical, get-out-the-vote strategy. Many people of faith oppose the proposal for that very reason. Rep. Darren Jernigan (D-Nashville), who voted against the measure, his pastor assured him that “Jesus would not want to be in a political document.”
Not everyone in Tennessee believes in God. Even among those who are religious, many do not believe in the same Christian God as proponents of this bill. Yet this proposal would, at a minimum, enshrine in the state constitution the message that the people of the state prefer those who believe in God over those who do not. This is the antithesis of religious freedom. During debate, Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) argued that the current Constitution avoids religious bias and that “we should let the wisdom of our founders of Tennessee stand.”
Let’s hope that Tennessee legislators come to their senses next year and reject this constitutional amendment proposal.