How much do you know about the four Constitutional Amendments you’ll vote on November 8? (1) The wording can be confusing, so here are some things to consider. First and foremost, if you want your vote on the amendments to count, you must vote for governor. In Tennessee, the vote tally for governor (that is total votes for all candidates) is divided by two to determine the break point. According to Article XI, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution, (2) if the number of yes votes on any amendment exceeds 50 percent +1 of the total votes for candidates for governor, the amendment passes and becomes part of the Constitution. If you do NOT vote for a candidate for governor, your ballot counts as a YES for all proposed amendments even if you mark NO on your ballot, according to Rep. Chris Todd (R).
(see References at end of article for more information on each proposed amendment).
Constitutional Amendment #1
Summary: This amendment would add a new section to article XI of the Tennessee Constitution to make it illegal for any person, corporation, association, or the State of Tennessee or its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person because of the person’s membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.
Right to work is already a part of Tennessee Code Annotated §50-1-201 (3) and this codifies it, makes it law. So why do we need it? House Speaker Sexton says it will, “ingrain this key principle of Tennessee business into our constitution.” (4) Another lawmaker says this proposal preempts any potential challenge by future democratic politicians. Support is split along party lines with one republican house member voting with democrats against the amendment.
However, several conservative grassroots groups in Tennessee, who act as watchdogs over the supermajority republican legislature, urge caution over the words “employee organization” included along with “labor unions.” This phrasing has no court precedent on the meaning. It could prohibit any kind of activity besides union. Further, one constitutional attorney points out that activists use the courts to interpret meaning as they want, which is how the courts redefined ‘liberty’ and gave us Roe vs. Wade.
Rep. Chris Todd (R) asserts that “employee organization” could be defined later by legislation. If so, then why would the multitude of attorneys who oversee and fine tune legislative documents leave undefined language in the proposal? Would you feel comfortable signing a contract with undefined terms?
Altering a document as sacred as our Constitution deserves measured consideration. Further, public debate has been limited as few knew of the posting on the proposals until just recently.
A stated by one commentator, “right to work has persisted by state statue now for 75 years because it works.” (5) It is a safe guess it will continue to work for another 75 years.
Constitutional Amendment # 2
Summary: This amendment would add to article III, section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution a process for the temporary exercise of the powers and duties of the governor by the Speaker of the Senate—or the Speaker of the House if there is no Speaker of the Senate in office—when the governor is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office of governor. While a Speaker is temporarily discharging the powers and duties of the governor, the Speaker would not be required to resign as Speaker or to resign as a member of the legislature; but the Speaker would not be able to preside as Speaker or vote as a member of the legislature. A Speaker who is temporarily discharging the powers and duties of the governor would not get the governor’s salary but would get the Speaker’s salary. The amendment would also exempt a Speaker who is temporarily discharging the powers and duties of the governor from provisions in the Constitution that would otherwise prohibit the Speaker from exercising the powers of the governor and from simultaneously holding more than one state office.
Currently, the Tennessee Constitution provides that the Lt. Governor would serve as governor, “ in the event of the death, resignation, or removal from office through impeachment and conviction of the governor of Tennessee.” (6) This amendment would add to the Constitution a provision for when the governor would be “unable to discharge the powers and duties” due to a temporary situation of either physical or mental disability. This must be done by constitutional provision only, and as of now, Tennessee is the only state that does not provide for a temporary acting governor.
Constitutional attorneys ask several good questions, including: how and when does a temporary Governor’s status and the powers associated with it to be drawn to a close. (7) And, could this particular procedure could be used to oust the Governor such as when an attempt was made using the 25th Amendment against Trump?
Others ask if this amendment actually gives the Tennessee Executive Branch, not the voters, the power to replace the governor. The summary reads in part: “A majority of the commissioners of administrative departments (may submit) written, signed declaration that the Governor is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.” There are no conditions for this “declaration” by these unelected officials! (8) A more restrictive clause would be all commissioners, not just a majority. The governor appoints his cabinet of department administrators, but it may be prudent and to the people’s benefit to leave this critical decisions to elected officials who are directly responsible to the people.
Constitutional Amendment # 3
Summary: This amendment would change the current language in article I, section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution, which says that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a person who has been duly convicted of crime, are forever prohibited in this State. The amendment would delete this current language and replace it with the following language: “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.”
The new wording, in effect, takes away labor as punishment for a crime, and makes it legal (not lawful) to use inmates for free labor. (9) Some say CoreCivic— a private prison-owner company which houses 30% of Tennessee prisoners– was involved in writing this amendment. They have a dismal record, which may bring into question the nature of their influence. (10)
Several legislators admit to being unsure of this legislation which was hotly debated on the floor. While the proposal passed, several lawmakers admit they are unsure how they are going to vote when they go to the polls. (11) Tennessee citizens may question whether the state should pay prisoners to work while also paying for their room and board. Then there is question as what happens with the money. Should it go to the prisoners, the facility, or to the victims?
Constitutional Amendment # 4
Summary: This amendment would delete article IX, section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution, which prohibits ministers of the gospel and priests of any denomination from holding a seat in either House of the legislature.
The practice of prohibiting clergy from serving in public office came from English law to prevent “dual office-holding.” Thirteen states initially banned clergy from serving in public office in the drafting of their constitutions, but only Tennessee and Maryland kept this provision in their constitutions going into the 20th century. (12)
In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on behalf of a Baptist minister from Chattanooga that this provision violated his First Amendment right by forcing him to choose between exercising his spiritual calling and participating in a public capacity. (13) Therefore, this provision has already been invalidated, and the change simply aligns the language of the state constitution with current interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Rep. Johnny Shaw is a minister and a member of the TN General Assembly.
Many church-goers believe conservative values and morals are demonstrated in priests and ministers and they are therefore ideally positioned to represent a population.(14) However, an oath to the Constitution must be taken upon entering office. Some may question whether taking this oath conflicts with the oath of office of the ministry. Christian scripture includes, “do not swear an oath at all.”(15) Further, a question of “two masters” may inhibit decision-making by creating conflicts of interests. Pastors, by definition, are those whose duty is to spread the word of God and shepherd followers seeking spiritual guidance. They are to be dedicated to studying and preaching. (16) Would holding both offices create a potential distraction for either one of the other? Ultimately, any minister, priest or officious religious representative and a congregation must decide how important this really is and where or how loyalties lie.
- See #2 above.
- See #8 above.
- This author is witness to these comments.
- Matthew 5:33-37 NASB