Religious Liberty in Tennessee

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Ramsey.jpgTennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who happens to be running for governor of the Volunteer State, has caught a bunch of flak for his recent comments on the stump suggesting that Muslims might not merit First Amendment protection. Asked to comment on the proposed construction of an Islamic community center in Murfreesboro, he said, “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or
is it a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it. Now certainly we do protect our religions, but at the same time this is
something we are going to have to face.

This has tempted me to wonder out loud if Ramsey’s understanding of the First Amendment is that laws can be made prohibiting the free exercise of cults, to point out that one man’s cult is another’s religion, etc. But averse as I am to shooting fish in a barrel, and always actuated by a desire for deeper understanding, I figured I’d try to determine where Ramsey’s coming from.

enuf.jpgWhere he comes from is Blountsville, which is about as deep as you can get into Upper East Tennessee. That’s the hilly part of the state that has given the world NASCAR, thanks to the pressing need moonshiners had to outrace the revenooers. The local soft drink, brewed by Tri-City Beverage in Johnson City, is Dr. Enuf, originally sold as a tonic for hangovers, which is definitely what you get if you make a habit of drinking what they’re running down from the hollers. The drink’s marketing slogan is “Enuf is Enough,” which, I can attest, is also true.

liston.jpgWhen it comes to cults, the most famous local variety features churches with names like the Church of God with Signs Following and the Church of Jesus with Signs Following and the Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name–all offshoots of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) that, based on Mark 16: 17-18, favor the handling of snakes and the drinking of poison as signs of election. They also follow a distinctive way of life that eschews alcohol, carbonated beverages, coffee, and tea; smoking; dancing; the use of cosmetics and jewelry; and recourse to medical doctors. Male co-religionists greet each other with a vigorous hug and the “holy kiss,” a mouth-to-mouth osculation. [continues after jump]

Now, as a Methodist Sunday School teacher, Ramsey can be expected to
take a dim view of this lineal descendant of Methodism whose most
distinctive practices Tennessee sought to prohibit through legislation
passed after World War II banning the displaying of snakes in such a way
as to endanger others. Indeed, in 1975, when Ramsey was pursuing his
undergraduate studies at East Tennessee State University, the Tennessee
Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision prohibiting the handling
of snakes and the consumption of poison in a case, State
ex rel. Swann
v. Pack
, involving a church in Newport, 60
miles southwest of the ETSU campus. The case was brought because the
local prosecutor feared that Cocke county was in imminent danger and
likely to “become the snake handling capital of the world.”

To be
sure, the number of snake-handling Christians number in the hundreds
and the number of Muslims in the hundreds of millions, but I reckon
there are comparable numbers of both groups in Tennessee. So Ramsey
might be forgiven–well, not exactly forgiven, but, let’s say, understood
for thinking of Muslims as comparable to the snake-handling folk
in his own religious neck of the woods. Yesterday, he did seek to
nuance his position, telling the Nashville Tennessean that he
has “no problem–and I don’t think anyone in this country has a
problem–with peace-loving, freedom-loving Muslims that move to this
and assimilate into our society.”

“But, he continued, “it’s
undeniable that there’s a
portion of Islam that’s been co-opted by a radical faction that
promotes violence not only against Americans but around the world. That’s what I’m talking about.” What Ramsey thinks that has to do
with the Murfreesboro situation is not clear, but under the circumstances,
I’d recommend that he go back and read State
ex rel. Swann
v. Pack
, wherein the justices of the state he hopes to govern take
exceptional pains to make clear that in disallowing life-threatening
religious practices they in no way wish to undermine the protections
offered to religious conscience by both the federal and state
constitutions. Here’s a taste:

Under our
constitutions, a citizen may be a devout Christian, a dedicated Jew or a
consummate infidel–or he may be a member of the Holiness Church of God
in Jesus Name. The government must view all citizens and all religious
beliefs with absolute and uncompromising neutrality. The day this
Country ceases to countenance irreligion or unusual or bizarre
religions, it will cease to be free for all religions. We must prefer
none and disparage none.

This is something the Lt. Governor is going to have to face. Or in other words, enuf is enough.