Federal appeals panel upholds Tennessee voter-registration law

Tuesday, September 19, 2000

A 1972 Tennessee law that requires residents to disclose their Social
Security numbers in order to register to vote does not violate freedom of
religion, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

Martin McKay sued in federal court in 1998, contending that the
requirement violated several of his constitutional rights, including his First
Amendment right to freely exercise his religious beliefs.

McKay argues that the biblical Book of Revelation warns against use of
government identifiers as a condition for engaging in vital activities, such as

After a lower court rejected this claim, he appealed to the 6th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals. Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit
affirmed the lower court decision in McKay v.

“A state law that is rationally related to a legitimate state purpose
will be upheld against a free exercise claim, even in a ‘hybrid’ situation
involving other fundamental rights such as voting, so long as the law is
generally applicable, not aimed at particular religious practices, and free of
a system of particularized exceptions,” the panel wrote.

The panel cited the 1990 case Employment
Div. v. Smith
in which the Supreme Court concluded that the
free-exercise clause of the First Amendment was not violated by “neutral laws
of general applicability,” even if those laws happened to infringe upon
religious beliefs or practices.

The 6th Circuit panel said McCay’s reliance on cases reaching a
different outcome was “misplaced because those cases utilized the least
restrictive means/compelling state interest standard subsequently overruled” by
the Supreme Court in Employment Div. v.

Janet M. Kleinfelter, senior counsel for the Tennessee Attorney
General’s office, said that the 6th Circuit reached the correct decision under
Employment Div. v. Smith. “The state
has a legitimate interest in preventing voter fraud and in identifying people
who are eligible or ineligible to vote,” she said.

McKay, who filed the lawsuit himself, said he was not sure “what his
next course of action will be.”

“This decision is out of line with prior 6th Circuit decisions and
U.S. Supreme Court case law,” he said.