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Front Page - Friday, February 1, 2019

Rogers column: Where exactly does God fit in TN Constitution?

A Tennessee legislator is trying to insert Almighty God into the Tennessee Constitution, after falling short in 2018.

And in 2017. And 2016. And 2015.

He certainly doesn’t lack for persistence. Bless his heart.

The legislator is Rep. James (Micah) Van Huss of Jonesborough. He’s a Republican, which is unsurprising: Behind any legislation that seeks to insert God into government lurks the good ol’ Grand Old Party.

Van Huss this year has introduced two slightly different House resolutions, either of which would add this to the Tennessee Constitution:

“We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God.”

The language is a refinement from the original submission in 2015, which read, “… Almighty God, our Creator and Savior.” (I can imagine that Van Huss would have liked it all set to music, and sung, hymn-like.) The streamlined version passed the House, 69-17 in 2017, and the Senate, 25-1 in 2018.

Procedural issues and the lengthy amendment process have it in need of further approval. But considering that Republicans hold super-duper majorities in both houses, and considering that it takes an extremely brave Republican to vote against Almighty God, the skids would appear to be greased for ultimate victory.

What to say, what to say …

How about this (biting my tongue): It’s a well-intentioned but bad idea.

It did have the good effect, however, of sending me to the Tennessee Constitution to see if God already resides there. Turns out the answer is yes, but in a somewhat confusing manner.

Confusing for me, that is, though not for William C. Koch Jr., dean of the Nashville School of Law and a former justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Article I, Section 3, speaks to freedom of religion. Section 4 provides that “no political or religious test … shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state.”

So far, so good.

But then we get to Article IX, Section 1, which says that “no Minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever,” can serve in the legislature.

And Section 4 of the same article says, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.”

Both those sound like tests to me.

First things first, without getting too far into the weeds on specifics: The United States Supreme Court has rendered those prohibitions inoperative.

“Even though they’re still in the printed version, they’ve been vestigial and unenforceable since 1978,” Koch says.

The surprising part, Koch adds, is that the original intent of what sounded to me like conflicting goals was actually meant to strengthen the wall between church and state.

“It was a very common provision in early constitutions,” he explains. “I wouldn’t say every state had it, but we were certainly not outliers.”

“The implicit assumption was everybody adhered to some religion,” Koch says. Constitutional language just sought to prevent any particular religion from getting the upper hand, and to keep ministers “dedicated to God and the care of souls.”

Then came the 1950s and 1960s, and “What about us atheists?” And the Supremes ruled that religion can’t be favored over nonreligion.

Back now to the legislative effort to have Almighty God recognized as the source of Tennessee liberties.

“Some people view it as a profoundly correct statement,” Koch continues. “Some view it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Others probably view it as something that’s not necessary, but won’t hurt anything.”

I invited him to say which group he fell into. He declined.

“What I would say is that constitutions are not like statutes. You don’t amend them or change them on impulse.” Any alteration, he adds, “ought to be done delicately, carefully, very slowly. All the cards ought to be on the table.”

As regards this matter, “I have not seen that sort of public discussion or debate.”

Koch also cautions that a constitution that enshrines liberties as heavenly ordained could allow for the argument that earthly legislatures and courts have no authority to regulate them.

“And that can create a real problem,” he says

Again: Good intention. Bad idea.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com