McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618 (1978)

In the earliest days of the Republic, a number of colonies (and then states) disqualified ministers from holding public office, purportedly to further the disestablishment of the church from the state. Over time, states gradually moved toward the position advanced by James Madison that religious liberty meant clergy should not be forced to choose between their mini- Csterial calling and serving the public through officeholding. In McDaniel v. Paty, the Supreme Court abolished clergy disqualification provisions, holding they unconstitutionally violated ministers’ First Amendment free exercise rights.

At issue in McDaniel was a Tennessee statute that barred ministers from serving as delegates to Tennessee’s 1977 constitutional convention. (The statute arose as a cousin to a long-standing state constitutional provision barring ministers from serving as legislators.) Paul McDaniel, an ordained Baptist minister from Chattanooga, Tennessee, filed as a candidate to the convention. An opposing candidate, Selma Cash Paty, sued for a declaratory judgment that McDaniel should be disqualified from serving and that his name should be removed from the ballot. The lower court held that the statute violated the First Amendment (as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment in Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 1940) and permitted McDaniel to remain on the ballot. On appeal (after McDaniel convincingly won the election), the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed, holding the clergy disqualification statute constitutional. McDaniel appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

All eight justices who heard the case voted to reverse, permitting McDaniel to serve as a delegate to the convention, but they did not agree on a rationale. The four-member plurality opinion, authored by Chief Justice Burger, held that the clergy disqualification statute violated McDaniel’s free exercise right to act upon his religious beliefs by conditioning that action upon the surrender of his right to seek public office. McDaniel could not constitutionally be forced to choose between these two rights. The plurality averred that McDaniel’s freedom to act upon his religious beliefs could be limited only by government ‘‘interests of the highest order’’ (quoting Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 1972). Tennessee attempted to meet this compelling interest test by asserting an establishment clause interest in preventing the establishment of a state religion. But when balanced against McDaniel’s free-exercise right to act upon his religious beliefs (including vocationally), the state interest was insufficient and outdated, the Court held.

The plurality did not think that Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), which it said held the ‘‘freedom of belief’’ to be inviolable, governed. The plurality stated that Tennessee’s statute did not affect McDaniel’s belief but rather operated specifically against his status as a minister. Three other justices, in concurrences, thought Torcaso was directly controlling because the Tennessee statute created an impermissible classification based upon religion, which was specifically disallowed by Torcaso. Two of those justices also thought the state’s act of setting up religious classifications violated the establishment clause.

Read together, Torcaso and McDaniel provide a sort of symmetry on religious neutrality: Just as the state cannot require office holders to subscribe to a certain religious belief, neither can it exclude them for having a religious belief.

JOEL A. NICHOLS

References and Further Reading

  • Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Stokes, Anson Phelps. Church and State in the United States, 1950.
  • Witte, John, Jr., Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 2nd ed., Westview, 2005.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)

See also Belief–Action Distinction in Free Exercise Clause History; Compelling State Interest; Incorporation Doctrine; Limitations on Clergy Holding Office; Wall of Separation

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