A tomato, a raccoon, limestone and milk — what do these things have in common? All are state symbols of Tennessee, and soon, they may be joined by the Holy Bible.
Tennessee senators approved 19-8 a bill to designate the Holy Bible as the official state book on Monday. The legislation passed the House last April, and now awaits Gov. Bill Haslam’s approval or veto.
Meanwhile, the prospect of seeing the Bible among the state’s slate of official symbols has set both Christian and non-Christian hearts astir.
The most overt opposition has come from those who view the bill as unconstitutional in privileging the views of one religion over others. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said as much in a legal opinion obtained by the Associated Press last April, in which he quoted a provision of the Tennessee Constitution: “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” There’s also the small matter of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars the establishment of religion by the states and U.S. government.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has also been fighting the bill.
“We are disappointed that Tennessee lawmakers have voted to use their official positions to promote their personal religious beliefs,” ACLU Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “America is a place where people are free to practice religion, or not, without government officials deciding which beliefs should be endorsed.”
Proponents of the measure contend that it does not force the Bible on anyone, but rather celebrates its place in the state’s cultural and economic history. The Senate sponsor is Sen. Steve Southerland (R), and the House sponsor is Rep. Jerry Sexton (R).
The bill notes that families used their copies of the Bible to record family histories that were passed down for generations. It also says the book is a multimillion-dollar industry for the state, as several major Bible publishers are headquartered in Nashville.
Some members thought these details diminished the Bible’s stature.
“The Bible is a book of history, but it is not a history book to be placed on the shelf,” Sen. Ferrell Haile (R) told the Tennessean.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D) likewise questioned the relevance of noting the Bible’s practical uses in the bill.
“I don’t think that’s why we read the Bible, I don’t think that’s why we send our kids to vacation Bible school,” he told the AP. “To those of us who grew up in this faith, it is so much more.”
Two Democrats and 17 Republicans voted in favor of the bill; six Republicans and two Democrats voted against.
According to the AP, the vote came days before the candidate filing deadline, so its passing may have been helped by lawmakers reluctant to appear opposed to the Bible.
“I understand that it’s hard to vote against the Bible,” Yarbro told the Tennessean. “No one wants to do that.”
Sen. Kerry Roberts (R), who was in favor, acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, but said the country was built on religious references.
“The very founding of our nation — the very form of government that we have today — was put forth by men of faith, based on their faith, based on what they read in Holy Scripture,” Roberts told the Tennessean. (That’s a much disputed claim in itself.)
But this particular nod to the Bible will place it alongside state’s official amphibian (a Tennessee Cave Salamander) and the state’s official rifle (a Barrett .50 caliber), and the juxtaposition has some shaking their heads.
“I love catfish, but listen, it doesn’t come close to the Holy Scripture,” Michael Williams, a Nashville pastor, told the Tennessean.
Mark Norris (R), the state senate majority leader, went as far as to suggest that the bill invited an eternal punishment.
Norris said last year, according to the Times Free Press: “All I know is I that I hear Satan snickering. He loves this kind of mischief. You just dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you’re on your way to where he wants you.”
Haslam (R), the governor has said the measure isn’t “very respectful” to the scriptures, but it is unclear whether he will veto it. He told WJHL last week that he has “personal reservations” and “constitutional questions” about the bill.
The designation would make Tennessee the first state to select the Bible as its official book. Lawmakers in Mississippi and Louisiana have tried to enact similar measures, but they were unsuccessful. In Alabama, a specific copy of the Bible, dated 1853, is considered its state bible, but not its state book.
Both Michigan and Massachusetts have official state children’s books: “The Legend of Sleeping Bear,” based on a Native American legend, and “Make Way for Ducklings,” respectively. The latter spins the yarn a mallard duck couple raising their plump of ducklings in a lagoon at the heart of Boston.
These selections have been decidedly less controversial than past proposals to make “Moby-Dick” the state book of Massachusetts and “Little House on the Prairie” the state book of Minnesota.
Should Haslam approve the bill, then, Tennessee will set an example for what it means to have a state book, if it means anything at all. Rest assured, unbelievers: Rep. William Lamberth (R) said last year the measure would not make the Bible required reading.
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