NASHVILLE -- When a bill designating the "Holy Bible" as the official state book hits the House floor this week, some of its biggest boosters will be "ministers of the Gospel" who serve in the General Assembly.
But Tennessee's founding fathers never intended to allow ministers to serve as representatives or senators. They wrote the ban into Article IX, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution, adopted in 1796.
It took a Chattanooga minister, the Rev. Paul McDaniel, and the U.S. Supreme Court to void that language, to the good fortune of the four House members and the bill's main Senate sponsor, all pastors.
The section states that "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 be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature."
McDaniel challenged that language so he could serve as a delegate in the the 1977 state constitutional convention. Though he lost in Tennessee, the nation's highest court ruled in his favor in 1978.
"If it hadn't been changed, the Tennessee Constitution would keep them from serving even now," said Herschel Franks, a retired state appellate judge who as a Hamilton County chancellor initially ruled in McDaniel's favor but was overruled by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
McDaniel's opponent, Chattanooga attorney Selma Cash Paty, cited the provision in challenging his eligibility to run.
"She initiated it to keep my name off the ballot; that's how it began," recalled McDaniel, 84, a prominent local civil rights leader who retired last year from his decades-role as the senior pastor at Second Missionary Baptist Church.
Franks cited the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution when he ruled for McDaniel, but Paty appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which relied solely on the state constitutional provision and reversed Franks.
Those judges said the disqualification of clergy imposed no burden upon "religious belief" and restricted "religious action ... [only] in the lawmaking process of government -- where religious action is absolutely prohibited by the establishment clause ... ."
The nation's highest court, in a ruling packed with discussion of church, state, history and the precedence of the U.S. Constitution over states' constitutions, sided with the local minister.
The justices's reasons went every which way, from the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of free speech to equal treatment or other provisions.
While the Tennessee Constitution speaks of ministers not being diverted from the task of saving souls, then-Chief Justice Warren Berger, a Nixon appointee writing for a four-member plurality, stated, "the purpose of the several States in providing for disqualification was primarily to assure the success of a new political experiment, the separation of church and state."
Seven of the 13 original states, later joined by six others, including Tennessee barred ministers from service. Most of the original colonies had had some form of an established or government-sponsored church, Warren wrote.
But there was always disagreement over disqualifying clergy, he noted, and as states moved away from established or government-sponsored churches "in all but a few States, the selection or rejection of clergymen for public office soon came to be viewed as something safely left to the good sense and desires of the people."
McDaniel, who remained on the ballot during the appeal, won the delegate's race and served in the state convention.
The lead House sponsor of the the Bible bill is Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, who stepped down as a Baptist minister two years before his 2014 House bid. Sexton said he wasn't familiar with the McDaniel case.
Sexton and some other bill proponents say their intent is not religious but a statement of what the Bible has meant historically to Tennessee, from its use in areas such as establishing family trees to the religious printing industry in Nashville.
More than 60 House members are co-sponsors, The Senate version's lead sponsor is Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, another ordained minister, and at least 18 senators are backing it.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, is one of the Bible bill's House sponsors. He is an ordained minister in the Cleveland-based Church of God and works for the national organization.
"I think we should always, as we are told by the Bible, to keep his commandments first," Brooks said. "I think it's applicable for us to acknowledge the Bible."
Under the bill, the Bible would be listed as the state book in Tennessee's official Blue Book. It would go there along with various state poems, songs, birds, flowers and reptiles. And that's fine by Brooks.
He was aware of the constitutional ban but believes it doesn't apply to him because his role with the Church of God is primarily public relations and event planning and doesn't involve a lot of preaching.
He wasn't aware of the McDaniel case and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Neither was Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, another bill sponsor. Shaw said the issue arose during his first election 14 years ago. But he said he researched and found a number of ordained ministers serving in the General Assembly and figured it was no longer applied.
Several lawmakers as well as religious leaders have raised concerns about the bill. Last week, a House subcommittee chairman said Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has been asked for a legal opinion on its constitutionality.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, told reporters last week he opposes the bill.
"I'm just adamantly opposed to that. I mean the Bible is my official book, it is. It shouldn't be put in the Blue Book with Rocky Top [the state song], salamanders [state reptile] and tulip poplars [state tree]. I'm sorry; it just shouldn't," Ramsey said.
He said he'll vote against the bill if it gets to the Senate floor.
"I think that belittles the most holy book that's ever been written, in my opinion."
Ramsey has at least one ally. The Rev. McDaniel isn't too excited about the bill either.
The Bible, he said, "is for the believers and the community of believers. And so one [is] seeking to impose his own religious preference upon others, which God himself did not do to us.
"What this to me is, is an effort to impose these religious beliefs of one group upon a larger group. Which to me makes no rational sense."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.