Why Tennessee Is Just Now Looking at Lifting a Ban on Clergy in the Legislature

A Presbyterian was burnt in effigy, a Methodist was shot in the leg, and that’s just the start of the story of this constitutional prohibition.

Tennessee voters will decide this fall whether to lift a ban on clergy serving in the state legislature. The ban hasn’t been enforced since 1978, when the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, but it’s still written in the state constitution, as it has been since Tennessee was founded.

The state senate and assembly have put an amendment on the November ballot so voters can change that. Tennesseans will be asked if they would like to strike section 1 of article IX, which says that “no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.”

The change was proposed by Republican state senator Mark Pody, a conservative evangelical from outside of Nashville. 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.”

He’s not alone. The history of the constitutional clause keeping clergy out of the legislature is obscure, even among scholars who study the separation of church and state. Section 1 of article IX isn’t a part of anyone’s standard historical narrative.

The strange story of why Tennessee is only now considering changing the constitution to allow ministers into the state legislature involves Anglican oaths, …

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