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State constitution says atheists can't be elected to public office in Tennessee

(Fox 17 News)

A special election in Rutherford County is raising questions about the ability and legality of an atheist winning a state office in Tennessee.

On Tuesday, Rutherford County voters will take to the polls in a special election for 14th District State Senate seat, which was vacated by Jim Tracy.

Democratic candidate Gayle Jordan isn’t your average Tennessee political candidate, and she knows that. She’s built a platform on education, equality, rural healthcare and better roads.

The focal point of her election has been her religion, or rather her lack there-of.

“The word ‘atheist’ means a person who does not have a belief in a god," Jordan said. "That’s where we fall on the spectrum. It’s a scary word because people aren’t accustomed to hearing that.”

Jordan said she plans to serve by looking at issues through a lens of compassion and reason instead of faith.

Her opponent, conservative businessman Shane Reeves, said he is among the 80 percent of folks in the 14th district who identify as Christian.

“I think whoever is running for office, no matter who it might be, everybody’s bringing a set of core values to the job,” Reeves said. “I think it’s very important those core values reflect the people you’re going to be representing in the state senate.”

If Jordan wins the election, there is a Tennessee law that could prevent her from serving. In Article IX of the Tennessee State Constitution, it says someone is disqualified from being elected to state office if they are a member of the clergyor an atheist.

Both candidates are aware that law is on the books, but the law is largely ignored and dismissed.

“It is unenforceable," Jordan said. "It’s unconstitutional, and it wouldn’t withstand any kind of legal scrutiny."

“I don’t think it’s ever been challenged," Reeves said. "I’m not sure we’ve ever had an atheist in the state of Tennessee that’s ever served so it’s never been challenged."

Reeves said he will not challenge if Jordan wins the election.

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