Editorial: Time to eradicate a dark vestige of our history

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Tennesseans are again heading to the polls to participate in our democracy by casting their vote in the Nov. 8 elections. There will be a host of candidates running for a wide variety of local, state and federal offices on the ballot. And with the long list of candidates’ names on the ballot will be four proposed amendments to the Tennessee Constitution.

Amendment One will codify the state’s so-called “Right to Work” law into the Constitution. Amendment Two establishes a procedure for naming an acting governor in the event the governor is incapacitated. Amendment Four would remove the Constitution’s ban on “ministers of the gospel and priests of any denomination from holding a seat in either House of the Legislature,” which in 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled is unconstitutional. The canon law of the Catholic Church prohibits clergy from holding elective office.

Amendment Three addresses a dark vestige of our history: slavery. 

Currently, Article 1, Section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution says: “Slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

This wording includes the same exception for a punishment for crime as the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery across the land. During the Jim Crow era, that provision was often abused, leading to African American men being arrested and convicted on flimsy charges and then sentenced to work on farms or in mines as a replacement, in effect, for the slavery that was legally abolished.

The proposed amendment would replace the current wording with: “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.”

A “yes” vote is a vote to adopt the amendment and to make the Constitution unequivocal in its prohibition of slavery and involvuntary servitude.

The Tennessee Catholic Conference, the successor to the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, on behalf of the three bishops of Tennessee – Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Bishop David Talley of Memphis and Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville – is encouraging passage of the amendment.

“As addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, slavery is an offense against the Seventh Commandment, ‘you shall not steal.’ As the theft of an individual’s liberty, slavery is never justified. Both the U.S. Constitution and federal law clearly prohibit the practice,” according to a statement issued by the Tennessee Catholic Conference. 

“The removal of language allowing for slavery or indentured servitude as a punishment for crimes from the Tennessee Constitution helps ensure that the institution of slavery is a thing of the past,” the statement added. “The General Assembly has shown wide, bi-partisan support of this amendment and we encourage the passage of Amendment Three on the ballot in the upcoming election.”

As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of every human life and the dignity of every person. Can there be a more egregious violation of those values than slavery, which seeks to eliminate any agency a person has over their life and to deny a person’s very humanity?

Our state constitution should state as clearly as possible that slavery, in any form, has no place in our society. Please prayerfully consider putting your vote where our Catholic values are. Please vote “yes” on Amendment Three.

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