A proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that would declare that liberties do not come from government, but from Almighty God failed in the State Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
The measure did not pass for the lack of a second to the motion to pass the resolution.
The action – or rather, inaction – by the Senate Judiciary Committee, effectively denied the citizens of state the right to vote on whether the declaration would be included in the Tennessee Constitution.
The statement would be added to the existing Article I, Section 2 of the state’s constitution which reads: “That government being instituted for the common benefit, the doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”
The resolution’s sponsor, Representative Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough), says HJR 0017 would replace the period at the end of Article I, Section 2 with a semi-colon followed by the declaration “and that liberties do not come from government, but from Almighty God.”
The path for an amendment to the state’s constitution is, rightfully, an arduous one.
Once a resolution passes through one chamber’s committee process and a majority vote by the body, it is taken up by the other chamber where it must also pass through the committee process and a majority vote by the body.
After publishing the proposed amendment at least six months prior to the election of the next Tennessee General Assembly, the resolution must again pass through the respective committee process of each chamber of the new general assembly.
Once it gets to the body of each chamber, the resolution must pass by the higher bar of a two-thirds vote by each chamber.
Finally, the amendment can then be submitted to the people for ratification at the next general election, in which a governor is chosen.
In the case of HJR0017, it passed in the House in April 2019, by an overwhelming majority and bipartisan vote of 73 Ayes and 17 Nays.
Having passed its first hurdle, HJR0017 would need to pass the Senate in 2020 to move on in the process from the 111th Tennessee General Assembly to the 112th elected in November 2020.
Then, HJR0017 would have to pass the 112th General Assembly between the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions, including a two-thirds vote on the floor both the House and Senate.
The proposed amendment could then appear on the ballot of the 2022 election, when the Tennessee governor election will also be held.
Despite the overwhelming vote in the House last year before the conclusion of the legislative session, the Senate Judiciary Committee never took up the resolution.
At Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, of which she is a member, Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) presented HJR 0017, which also includes Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville); Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga); Sara Kyle (D-Memphis); John Lundberg (R-Bristol); Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield);Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis); John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro).
After describing what the constitutional amendment would read, Senator Bowling said the proposal, “Would give the people of Tennessee the opportunity to decide that we recognize that liberties do not come from government, but from God.”
Senator Bowling then asked rhetorically, “Why is this needed?”
She went on to say, “In the previous general assembly we passed the bill to give words their meaning, and we have never lived in a time such as we do now where sometimes it is helpful to define the words.”
Regarding the resolution she presented, Senator Bowling added, “I think it’s important to give Tennesseans the opportunity to reaffirm that our liberties do not come from any man-created institution, rather they come from God.”
She went on that our Declaration of Independence says that our liberty is a right endowed by our creator, and read quotes reaffirming the same by John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump and the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., “God, who gave us life, gave us liberty.”
Then, testing her colleagues a bit, Senator Bowling asked who said, “My rights are not derived from any government, my rights are because of this. They were given to me and each of our citizens by our Creator, and they represent the essence of human dignity.”
“Those were from then-Vice President Joe Biden,” answered Senator Bowling.
“I agree with these men and the 56 signers of the nation’s Declaration of Independence. I want to give the folks of Tennessee the opportunity to voice their opinion at the polls.”
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Bowling then moved for passage of HJR0017.
Chairman Mike Bell said Senator Bowling moves HJR0017 and asked if there was a second. As he looked back and forth across the row of committee members, he asked again if there is a second.
“Seeing none,” Chairman Bell ruled as he gaveled, “the resolution stays in committee.”
Sponsor of HHR 0017, Representative Van Huss, told The Tennessee Star in a written statement, “HJR 17 passed the house floor with 73 yes votes. Three of the present Senators not giving it a motion voted for this exact same language two years ago.”
Indeed, Senators Bell, Roberts and Stevens voted for the same resolution in Senate Judiciary Committee as HJR 0037 in 2018.
Additionally, when HJR 0037 made it to the Senate floor on April 24, 2018, five of the current Judiciary Committee members voted for it, including Senators Bell, Gardenhire, Roberts, Stevens and Lundberg, who changed from his Judiciary Committee vote of present and not voting.
Representative Van Huss offered insight as to the outcome in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It came as no surprise as Senator Crowe had already informed me that Lt. Governor [Randy] McNally [(R-Oak Ridge)] had told him the Heartbeat Bill and this resolution would not pass this year.”
The district of State Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) encompasses that of Representative Van Huss. It was reported earlier this week by News Channel 11 WJHL that Senator Crowe picked up his papers to run for Tennessee’s First U.S. Congressional District seat being vacated by current U.S. Representative Phil Roe.
Despite the result in the Senate, Representative Van Huss remains undeterred.
“I will continue to fight for the values of the people of Tennessee regardless of what the Senate does,” Representative Van Huss told The Star.
The video of the February 25 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting can be viewed here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.