Oath-Keeping in the State Senate at Eastertime

Apr 19, 2019 by David Fowler

three crosses, a bible, and the TN flag stars
Most Christians will celebrate Easter this Sunday and on Monday, the Tennessee Senate will vote on a motion that would pull the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill out of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee to the floor of the Senate for debate and consideration. It’s called a Rule 63 motion, and it is rarely made. But these two consecutive days will give us a window into our state senators’ views on oath-taking compared to God’s.

The Seriousness With Which God Takes His Oaths

To put our consideration of political oaths in perspective, it would be good to consider how God looks at oaths He makes. One might say that the whole story of the Bible is about oath-keeping, specifically the revelation of how God kept His oath to fulfill His covenant.

While the details and significance of God’s oath and covenant are often little discussed today, Easter is about a “new” covenant, a covenant made by God with Jesus, who the Apostle Paul described as the “last Adam” and the “second man” (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45–47; see also Romans 5:12–17). In Jesus, Christians believe God kept His oath to fulfill the blessings flowing from the fidelity of Adam and his descendants to the covenant God swore to them as well as the sanctions flowing from their lack of fidelity thereto.

There is more that could be said about that, but here is the larger point relative to Monday’s Senate vote: Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension is a clear demonstration of how seriously God takes oaths.

The Oath Our Legislators Take

This is the oath our legislators take when they are sworn into office:

I [full name of legislator] do solemnly swear (or affirm) that as a member of this General Assembly, I will, in all appointments, vote without favor, affection, partiality, or prejudice; and that I will not propose or assent to any bill, vote or resolution, which shall appear to me injurious to the people, or consent to any act or thing, whatever, that shall have a tendency to lessen or abridge their rights and privileges, as declared by the Constitution of this state. (emphasis supplied)

To appreciate what the oath affirms, it needs to be put in the context of what it does not affirm and what I know is weighing on some senators’ minds.

Why do I know what may be weighing on their minds? Because a Rule 63 motion was before me back when I was a senator (1996, I think), and to my knowledge that was actually the last time such a motion has been made in the state Senate.

Wrongly Redirecting Delegated Authority

Whether it’s abortion or any other issue, one thing that naturally weighs on a senator’s mind in a situation like this is how his or her vote affects his or her relationship to the Speaker and the consequences politically and legislatively of bucking the Speaker’s wishes.

But the first thing to note about a senator’s oath of office is that there is no oath of fealty to the Speaker to do as he or she wishes or commands.

In other words, to cast a vote tinged with a desire to please, placate, curry favor with, or avoid the wrath of a Speaker and not on the merits of the issue is “ injurious to the people,” because it does “lessen [and] abridge their rights and privileges, as declared by the Constitution of this state.”

How? For one thing, the people from 32 of the 33 Senate districts did not vote to have the Speaker represent them. Voters do not delegate the authority they hold under the Tennessee Constitution to a legislator for that legislator to then make a de facto delegation of that authority to the Speaker to vote as he or she wishes.

But for the Christian legislator, the issue runs deeper: The legislator must consider, Do I believe that a certain relationship with the Speaker necessarily determines my effectiveness as a legislator from God’s perspective? Put another way, do I believe the Speaker is more sovereign over legislative matters on which I work and my political future than God?

The Quasi-Sanctity of the Committee System

Given the foregoing, to me the weightiest argument for voting against a Rule 63 motion is the one I heard as a senator—preserving the sanctity of the committee system.

The argument is that the committee process provides for orderly and due consideration of proposed legislation, and that the process will be destroyed if senators start filing a Rule 63 motion every time he or she is unhappy with a committee’s decision. There is a real element of truth to that argument, given that thousands of bills are filed each year.

Thus, Rule 63 motions should not be made for light or transient reasons. If either the issue or the exigencies of the situation to be addressed by the legislation were not compelling, then I would leave the action of the committee alone. The issue can be dealt with again in the next legislative session.

Is There an Oath to Uphold the Committee System?

However, in a senator’s oath of office, there is also no oath of allegiance to the committee system established by Senate rules by which his or her conscience is bound.

Moreover, Rule 63 exists in order that senators fulfill the purpose of their oath of office. By it, the Senate body as a whole recognizes that man-made rules for the administration of business should not stand in the way of some things, like, perhaps, protecting and securing God-given rights.

Not protecting and securing God-given rights and making the will of the majority of nine senators the absolute will of the whole body is, to me, “injurious to the people” and definitely has “a tendency to lessen or abridge their rights and privileges, as declared by the Constitution of this state.”

Would I Vote for the Rule 63 Motion?

Now that we all know why Rule 63 exists, here are the questions I would have to ask and answer for myself and before God, given the oath of office:
  • If protecting an unborn child’s right to life and asserting to the federal judiciary the reasons why the rationale employed by its decades-old abortion precedents no longer pertains is not important enough for the Senate as a whole to debate, what issue would ever be? After all, we are not just talking about medical procedures or the relationship between abortion rights and adult sexual liberty, but about the life and death of other, innocent human beings who get none of the due process assured by the Constitution.
  • Would passage of this bill add any weight and gravity to the push for Roe’s reversal by other states, given our knowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court can be highly motivated by cultural mood swings, as happened with reversing a 40-year old precedent in regard to same-sex “marriage”? In other words, are there any exigencies to be taken into here?
  • Should I depend on other states and their lawyers1 to have written their fetal heartbeat bills well and to have made the most legally compelling arguments? In other words, if their potentially feeble efforts are enjoined, I can count on their failure being thrown in my face next session and no one listening to my explanation as to why our bill and arguments are different and we should go forward anyway.
I can’t speak for others, but my answers would cause me to vote for the motion, because it would seem good to me to get started sooner rather than later the litigation process by which the inalienability of the right to life will be defended or denied.

And, at least to my mind, I would expect the God who created that life and bestowed that right to take very seriously my oath to defend its2 taking without being afforded due process of law.

  1. Some senators might point to the fact that the attorney general is not sure the bill can be upheld as constitutional. Perhaps his arguments don’t win in court, but forfeiting on the front end the opportunity to win doesn’t seem to be a good alternative. The fact is the Judiciary Committee members and the Speaker were given a legal argument for the bill along with law review articles and other materials supporting that argument. If senators are waiting until some attorney general tells them reversal of Roe v. Wade is a slam dunk win so that there’s no risk of putting money in the pockets of Planned Parenthood’s attorneys, then that will never happen. We have judges because lawyers don’t agree on what the law is or should be.
  2. If our attorney general cannot or will not defend an injury to the fundamental right to life with every argument he can marshal, then I have no doubt the two Speakers will serve their respective bodies by finding an attorney who will defend what the majority of them approved. Otherwise, each body can replace their Speaker if they have the political will to do so. The point is, there are always options, even if some are difficult or unpleasant to take. On more than one occasion, I directly bucked the express will of the Speaker with whom I served, so this complaint falls on deaf ears with me.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006.

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