July-August 2021 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

Tennessee’s Constitution dates to 1796 and contains some antiquated provisions. Chief among them is Article IX, which bars ministers, atheists and anyone who has fought in a duel or helped arrange one from holding public office.

The language dealing with atheists and ministers can’t be enforced. Both sections were invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in decisions handed down in 1961 and 1978 respectively. (The duelists are on their own.)

Nevertheless, state Sen. Mark Pody has proposed altering Article IX. Even though the language can’t be enforced, it is a relic of past bigotry and ought to be updated, Pody argues – sort of. The problem is, Pody’s proposal would remove only part of Article IX – the language dealing with ministers. He would leave the anti-atheist provision in place.

This makes no sense. The proper thing to do is get rid of Article IX entirely. Pody might be reluctant to do this because he is a conservative Republican who frequently promotes Christian nationalist causes in the legislature, but his current proposal is a half-step that leaves behind a reminder to nontheists that their rights are not respected in Tennessee.

Seven other states – Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas – have constitutions that bar public office to atheists. They are products of a less-enlightened time when the assumption was that people who don’t believe in God must be amoral. It is time for these reminders of past bigotry to go.

Tennessee could lead the way, but it won’t under Pody’s current proposal. That is a missed opportunity.