Tennessee’s constitution contains a provision banning public office to three classes of people: ministers, atheists and anyone who has fought in a duel or helped arrange one.
The provision, found in Article IX of the state’s constitution, dates to 1796 and is clearly antiquated. In fact, the bans on atheists and ministers can’t be enforced, having been nullified by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1961 and 1978 respectively. (Would-be duelists have apparently never tested the third section.) Now a legislator in Tennessee has proposed officially removing the section on ministers – but that’s all. Under a proposal put forth by state Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), the other two provisions would remain intact.
Pody points out that even though the language banning ministers from serving in the legislature can’t be enforced, it’s evidence of past bigotry and ought to go. He’s right about that – but the same thing could be said about the ban on atheists. So why not ditch it as well?
That question came up during the debate over Pody’s proposal. “If we’re going to do that, should we just clean up everything that’s currently in the Tennessee Constitution?” asked Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville). “We have numerous provisions that can be deleted. Seems like that would be a more sensible way of doing it and putting it on one resolution.”
Pody’s reply was rather weak. He said he prefers to make changes “one simple step at a time.”
A more likely scenario is that Pody, who frequently promotes Christian nationalist ideas in the Tennessee legislature, doesn’t want to be seen as going to bat for atheists. But to leave the anti-atheist language in, even if it can’t be enforced, while repealing the ban for religious leaders, only serves to reinforce the idea that the state doesn’t care about the rights of non-religious people.
Andrew L. Seidel, director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, put it well in a recent column in the Nashville Tennessean.
“It’s great that Tennessee is attempting to fix its Constitution, but it must do so objectively,” Seidel wrote. “Pody claims to be erasing relics of invidious discrimination, but he’s discriminating while doing so. He wants to erase the text that discriminates against ministers but leave the text that treats atheists as second-class citizens.”
Bingo. Since all three disqualifications are found in Article IX of the Tennessee Constitution, the obvious answer is to ask voters to repeal the entire article. Removing the section that bans ministers while leaving the ban on atheists in place only serves to perpetuate the bigotry Pody claims to oppose.
P.S. Several other states retain antiquated provisions barring atheists from holding public office in their constitutions. It’s time for all of them to go.