Weirdest Laws In Tennessee's State History

You've probably read about some pretty strange laws that have been written in various cities and states. In fact, there's not a state in the union that doesn't have a handful of laws that might make you question the level of competence of the persons who enacted them. While many of these state statutes and local ordinances have been dissolved or amended over time, there are still a surprising number of them still enforced across the United States.

Tennessee has proven itself to be just as guilty as the rest of the country in having a history of weird laws. These examples of legal strangeness exist from the lowest level of municipal governments all the way up to the state constitution itself. And while the risk of prosecution for violating the majority of these laws is virtually non-existent, you might find that they make an entertaining read. Let's take a closer look at some of the weirdest laws ever passed in the Volunteer State.

Remember thy sabbath

The original Tennessee Constitution also has a law prohibiting anyone from being forced to perform any public service on any designated day of rest that is provided by their religion. Article XI has it written in section 15 that "No person shall in time of peace be required to perform any service to the public on any day set apart by his religion as a day of rest" (via Tennessee State Constitution). While this law can certainly be interpreted rather broadly, it is generally interpreted to mean that the governing bodies in Tennessee cannot make you do any sort of community service during your religion's sabbath. 

Note that the one exception to this law is when the people are not in a time of peace. As the people of this newly formed state were still engaging in skirmishes with the Indigenous peoples who had settled the area first, the powers that be might have taken into consideration the necessity of making people commit to public service on their day of rest, should such a conflict arise. This law in the state constitution has never been repealed and could arguably still be enforced today. 

Ministers couldn't run for state office

Article IX of the Tennessee Constitution has a section that pertains to what will disqualify a person from holding public office. Here, you'll find a law that prohibits pastors and priests from holding an elected position in the state's legislature. It reads "Whereas Ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no Minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature" (per Tennessee State Constitution). 

But is this still enforceable in Tennessee? According to the First Amendment Encyclopedia, no. While several states had similar laws that forbade clergy from holding various levels of elected office, Tennessee's law was enforceable until a Supreme Court decision nullified it in 1977. In the case of McDaniel v. Paty, a Baptist minister filed to run for the state legislature, only to be met with a petition to halt his candidacy. After being upheld by the Tennessee high court, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land rendered a unanimous decision that struck down the Tennessee law, citing violations of the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Glue sales and handbills can get you into trouble in Nashville

While the laws outlined in the Tennessee state constitution can seem weird, there are definitely some local laws passed by town councils and county administrators that also fit the bill. The city of Nashville, for example, has some local laws that might leave you scratching your head. One such law will not allow a retailer from selling certain types of glues, solvents, or adhesives to anyone under the age of 21 unless those materials are part of a model kit package. Municipal code 11.28.060 is still on the books and could be enforced today.

Another weird local law in Nashville concerns the passing out of fliers. Anyone who distributes handbills can face a fine of $50 if any of the recipients give you written notice that they don't want to get one. Code 11.32.010 reads that the distributor of any flier, non-subscription newspaper or other reading material not delivered by the United States Post Office is subject to this penalty.

Periodic reviews keep legal codes in check

Laws that might make sense when they are drafted could become obsolete as the years tick by. Whether changes in technology or cultural norms label certain statutes or ordinances as unnecessary or unfair, it's important to acknowledge that there are mechanisms in place to aid the law in keeping up to date with our current visions of what the people want from the justice system. Whether it's accomplished by voter petition and referendum, by higher court rulings, or from a periodic review of the codes of law, needed changes to archaic laws do happen from time to time. 

While they may not happen at the pace that some want them to, at least there are ways that the people in any city or state can get the process started when the people find that there needs to be a change. And as you have been able to tell with the state of Tennessee, changes have been made in recent generations to bring this state up to modern standards.