McDaniel concerned whether a Tennessee law that barred members of the clergy from serving in public office violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Tennessee defended the statute on the grounds that under the Establishment Clause it was necessary to prevent religious influence on the secular government, a position unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court.
While all members of the Court agreed that the statute violated the Free Exercise Clause because it made the ability to exercise civil rights conditional on the surrender of religious rights, the justices disagreed about the reasons it was unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Burger, on behalf of four justices, wrote an opinion focusing on the practical effect of the prohibition and the improper choice it posed upon a clergyperson whether to resign his religious position or abandon his right to hold public office. Justice Brennan, with Justice Marshall, stated that the statute was unconstitutional under both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, and that it also imposed a religious test for office, as in Torcaso v. Watkins. Justice Stewart agreed that the statute improperly imposed a religious test. And Justice White wrote that the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case demonstrates the different paths judges and scholars follow in considering religious freedom cases.