Limitations on Clergy Holding Office

The proper role of clergy in politics has long been a controversial one in America. Although clergy have been actively involved in politics since our founding, a number of early state constitutions prohibited clergy themselves from holding various political offices. Seven of the original thirteen states imposed such restrictions, and six other states that entered the union in the early decades of the nineteenth century also included such restrictions. These restrictions took various forms, but most commonly prohibited clergy from being in the state legislature. Several states went further and prohibited clergy from holding any statewide office.

These prohibitions were likely modeled in part on the English practice of barring clergy from the House of Commons, where the Crown’s authority over the Church of England created concerns that clergy in the Commons might undermine that body’s independence. In the new United States the prohibitions on clergy holding office served two apparent purposes. First, several state constitutions that banned clergy from office specifically stated it was for the purpose of ensuring that ministers not be ‘‘diverted from the great duties of their service’’ to God. The second and more likely reason was to ensure a proper separation of church and state. Almost all of the states banning clergy from office were Southern or border states, and many in those states believed that New England clergy were too actively involved in politics. The ban on clergy in office arguably sought to avoid that being repeated elsewhere and to prevent any particular religious group from exerting too much power. There is also speculation that some Southern states feared that clergy in the legislature might promote abolition of slavery.

Two of America’s most prominent founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were initially deeply divided on whether clergy should be banned from political office. Jefferson strongly supported such restrictions, believing that when clergy had become ‘‘ingrafted into the machine of government,’’ they had become a ‘‘formidable engine’’ against the rights of others. Madison, on the other hand, believed that any special restriction on clergy holding office violated a ‘‘fundamental principle of liberty’’ by depriving them of a civil right enjoyed by others. Much later in life Jefferson changed his view and agreed with Madison, stating that experience had shown that clergy should be treated the same as others, and thus share the same rights to hold elective office.

Interest in banning clergy from political office began to wane in the middle of the nineteenth century. No state added such a provision after 1828, and, starting with New York in 1846, states that previously had such restrictions began to remove them from their constitutions. By the end of the nineteenth century only two states, Maryland and Tennessee, retained prohibitions on clergy holding political office. The Maryland provision was held unconstitutional by a federal district court in 1974.

The one remaining state prohibition, Tennessee’s, which precluded clergy from serving in the state legislature, was held unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court in McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618 (1978). The Court was unanimous in finding the provision unconstitutional, but divided in its reasoning. Four members of the Court said the provision violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment; two said it violated both the free exercise and the establishment clause; another said it violated the establishment clause; and a final justice found it violated the equal protection clause. A majority of the justices specifically rejected the state of Tennessee’s argument that the prohibition was justified by establishment clause principles. As stated by Justice Brennan in a concurring opinion, the establishment clause ‘‘does not place religious discussion, association, or political participation in a status less preferred than rights of discussion, association, or political participation generally.’’

The Court’s decision in McDaniel highlights the unconstitutionality of states placing limitations of clergy holding office. Neither our secular form of government nor our national commitment to separation of church and state require that anyone be precluded from political life because of religious views or affiliation. Although religion cannot be given a preferred status within our public life, neither can it be disadvantaged relative to other views. Instead, constitutional principles of free exercise of religion and free speech require that religious adherents have equal access to the political process. Anything less than this is, in the words of James Madison, ‘‘a deprivation of a civil right,’’ and inconsistent with our national commitment to a free and open political process.

MARK W. CORDES

References and Further Reading

  • Stokes, Anson P. Church and State in the United States. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

Cases and Statutes Cited

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

See also Disestablishment of State Churches in the late Eighteenth Century and Early Nineteenth Century; Religious Tests for Officeholding (Article 6, Cl. 3)

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