ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Staff File Photo / The Rev. Paul McDaniel says a few words of thanks after being awarded the Jocelyn D. Wurzburg Civil Rights Legacy Award by the Tennessee Human Rights Commission during a Hamilton County Commission meeting in 2018.

Tennessee voters will get the opportunity in November to remove a clause from the state constitution forbidding members of the clergy from serving in the state legislature — 44 years after the United States Supreme Court deemed the wording unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, it will be more than a year too late for the Chattanooga minister who challenged the law to see the words erased.

The Rev. Paul McDaniel, minister of Second Missionary Baptist Church in 1978 when the court ruled, died last August.

The Tennessee state Senate unanimously approved a resolution to put the removal of the wording on the ballot in 2021, but the state House did not get around to voting on the measure until the end of its session late last month. It eventually approved the resolution, 89-1.

McDaniel did get his shot at public office, though. When Hamilton County changed its form of government the same year as the Supreme Court ruling, the minister was elected to a county commission seat. He served on that body for five terms, often being elected chair of the panel.

Until this year, he was the only candidate for an open commission seat — in that initial 1978 election — who did not draw an opponent in either the primary or general election.

The state constitution wording in question states: "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."

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, who sponsored the resolution, told this newspaper's Andy Sher last year he was unaware of the clause's history.

"That's a great question," he said, "but I don't know the back story or why they put it in originally."

The back story, in brief, is that McDaniel wanted to serve as a delegate to the 1977 constitutional convention, and the qualifications for that slot were the same as for a legislator. His opponent for the position was Chattanooga attorney Selma Cash Paty, who filed suit to disqualify him, pointing to the clause in the state constitution.

The clergyman won his case in Hamilton County Chancery Court and served on the constitutional convention, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision. The case eventually wound its way to the federal courts, then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court ruled unanimously in McDaniel's favor 8-0, but the members — with one justice out with illness — divided in their reasoning. Indeed, the eight remaining justices presented four opinions.

The ruling — except the wording left in the state constitution — all but ended the prohibition on ministers serving as legislators, and several now serve in the General Assembly.

But Pody told the Tennessee Star this year he felt the constitution should be changed to allow those with evangelical beliefs to serve.

"Our forefathers founded this nation on Christian biblical values," he said.

We hope Pody understands the Supreme Court ruling, and his own bill, for that matter, allow clergy of any stripe to serve.

The constitutional amendment voters will see in November reads: "Proposes amendment to remove Article IX, Section 1 of the Constitution of Tennessee, which provides that no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall be eligible to a seat in either house of the legislature."

When Tennessee adopted its original constitution in 1796, it was not the only state which felt clergy did not belong in public office. Eleven of the 13 original states had such a ban. Indeed, the Founding Fathers had debated the issue.

English philosopher John Locke, whose views greatly influenced the founders, advocated for a clergy restriction, and so did Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, who would later change his mind. James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, and John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, opposed it.

By the time of McDaniel's challenge, though, Tennessee was the only state with such a prohibition on office-holders.

Though it's too late for the respected longtime minister to see it, we hope Volunteer State voters — especially those in Hamilton County, where he lived for 55 years — will honor his memory by voting to strike out the wording.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT