New Tennessee ballot measure to change constitutional language on clergy serving in the General Assembly

Tennessee’s 112th General Assembly adjourned and certified a new constitutional amendment to put onto the ballot on April 28. This amendment would remove a section of Tennessee’s Constitution that disqualifies religious ministers from being elected into the Tennessee General Assembly.

The newly certified amendment will join three others already certified to be on the ballot in Tennessee.

If voters approve it in November, the amendment would remove Section 1 of Article IX of Tennessee’s constitution, which bans ministers and priests from serving in the Tennessee General Assembly. The text of the amendment is written below:

Whereas ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.

During the 18th and 19th century, thirteen states, including Tennessee, had provisions in their constitution forbidding clergy from serving in the state legislature. Many of these bans were carried over from English law. Eleven states–Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia–have amended their constitutions and dropped these provisions during the late 1700’s and 1800’s. Maryland and Tennessee kept these provisions in their constitutions into the 20th century.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Tennessee law was unconstitutional in its McDaniel v. Paty ruling because it violated the first amendment. That same year, Maryland put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to remove the provision from their constitution, and voters approved to remove it. 

Tennessee is the only state left with this kind of provision left in their constitution.

To amend the constitution in Tennessee, state legislators must vote on a measure and approve it before putting it on the ballot. In Tennessee, this is done by both chambers of the General Assembly voting on the measure in two consecutive sessions with an election in between. For the first session, the measure must receive a simple majority vote of over 50%, and the second time around, the measure must receive a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

This constitutional amendment was introduced in February of 2019 as Senate Joint Resolution 178. Both chambers of Tennessee’s General Assembly then voted unanimously in favor of the amendment–the Senate voting in favor in 2019, and the House voting in favor in 2020. The amendment was then introduced to its second legislative session in 2021, where it was approved by both chambers. The Senate approved of the amendment on April 8, 2021, and on April 27, 2022, the House voted 89-1 to approve the amendment. The measure will now go to voters on election day in November.

This measure will join three other constitutional amendments already on the Tennessee ballot. All ballot measures are listed below:

  • A right-to-work amendment that mandates that no person can be required to pay dues to a labor union or join a labor union as a condition of employment.
  • An amendment to repeal language allowing slavery or indentured servitude as criminal punishments.
  • An amendment that provides a process and line of succession for the governor if they become disabled.
  • An amendment that removes the banning of clergy from serving in the General Assembly.

Voters approved each of the 11 constitutional amendments on the Tennessee ballot since 1995. Tennessee voters last decided on constitutional amendments in 2014.

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