Ballot initiatives in Tennessee and West Virginia put archaic laws restricting religion on the chopping block, Arkansans to vote on religious freedom amendment

Is it too early to anticipate November?

A fascinating piece in Christianity today dives into a planned ballot initiative for Tennessee voters. The measure repeals a provision of the state constitution that bars clergy from serving in the legislature. You may be wondering: can a state do this? Prohibit members of the clergy from being senators and state representatives? No of course not! It is downright unconstitutional. But – like many states – Tennessee’s original constitution included the ban, and it remained on the books despite being unenforceable.

Sensibly, State Senator Mark Pody introduced a ballot referendum to remove it. His justification is not so sensible:

Pody believes that “our ancestors founded this nation on biblical Christian values.” It’s one of the five core questions he lists on his website. “I adhere to such principles,” he wrote.

But when asked why Tennessee’s ancestors banned Christian ministers from becoming lawmakers when they founded the state in 1796, Pody had no answer.

“That’s a great question,” he told the Chattanooga Free Time Press. “I don’t know the story or why they put it in originally.”

America was do not founded as a “Christian nation” or on biblical values. The reason for opposing the banning of the clergy has nothing to do with granting a privilege to one religion, but to guarantee the right to everything Tennessians qualified to run for elected office without regard to their religious status or religious faith. In short, the ban was flawed on the basis of religious freedom, not religious patronage. This is why, as the article explains, the United States Supreme Court in 1978 ruled it unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that Tennessee made the ability to exercise a civil right — the right to run for office — conditional on giving up a religious right, the right to be a minister. Seven judges signed the opinion and one abstained, giving McDaniel an 8-0 unanimous decision victory.

Voters will have the opportunity to excise the illegal measure in November.

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, voters will have the opportunity to erase from their state constitution an archaic provision unique to West Virginia that prohibits the incorporation of churches and religious denominations. The ACLU of West Virginia supports the amendment:

This provision…discriminates against religious institutions by denying them the same opportunities as similar but secular institutions. The ban violates the US Constitution.

The state should never give preference to any particular religion, and it should never give preference to religion over non-religion. Likewise, it should not favor non-religious entities over similar religious entities. And that is exactly what Article 6, Section 47 of our state constitution does.

Finally, in Arkansas, voters will vote on whether to amend the state constitution by adding language inspired by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law would prevent the government from imposing a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion unless the burden is necessary to promote a compelling state interest.

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