In 1977, in McDaniel v. Paty, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling that held unconstitutional one of the last anticlerical remnants of the founding era, a 1796 Tennessee law that prohibited ministers and priests from holding public office.

The statute, drafted at the dawn of the republic in the name of separation of church and state, reflected a widespread legal policy among the early states that sought to curb the outsized role that clergy played in English public affairs and the colonies, in which laws respecting establishments of religion were a commonplace. The principle of banning religious officials from holding public office had enjoyed the support of the influential English philosopher, John Locke, as well as Thomas Jefferson. James Madison and John Witherspoon, the only minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, opposed such restrictions.

David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, a nonprofit organization created to promote the Constitution, gender equality and civic education. This column is made possible with the support of the South Dakota Humanities Council and South Dakota Newspaper Association. The views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the Argus Observer.

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