Tennessee moves to make Holy Bible the official state book

Reuters / Max Rossi
The Tennessee House of Representatives has voted to make the Bible the official state book. Legislators backed the measure despite questions raised by the state’s attorney general about the bill’s constitutionality and the governor’s stated disapproval.

Republican state Rep. Jerry Sexton, a pastor for 25 years before being elected in November, sponsored the bill to make the Bible a state symbol.

“History's going to tell us where we stand on this. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to have the side that I'm on,” Sexton said after the vote. “It may be kind to me in the future and it may not be kind, and that's OK. I made a decision for today and I feel good about it.”

The House was initially set to vote on the bill on Tuesday, but waited until Wednesday after receiving the state attorney general’s legal opinion on the issue, as requested by state Rep. Bill Sanderson (R). The legislation passed 55-38 over the legal objections of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III (Office of Attorney General, State of Tennessee)“Yes, designating The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and Article I, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution, which provides ‘that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship,’” Slatery wrote in his legal opinion.

“When the legislature chooses an official state symbol, it is in effect saying that the symbol, whether it be a poem, a flag, a rock, or a glass of milk, stands for and represents the State and its values in a positive way,” Slatery wrote. “Thus, these designations of ‘official state symbols’ inherently carry the imprimatur and endorsement of the government.”

Rep. Marc Gravitt (R) said the attorney general's legal opinion made it clear Tennessee could spend millions of dollars in a losing effort to defend the measure if it becomes law, Reuters reported.

Slatery, a Republican, has said he won’t defend the law in court if the ACLU or anyone else decides to sue the state, according to the Tennessean.

The bill was a GOP-led effort, but 20 Republicans voted against it ‒ including the House speaker, the Tennessean reported. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D) and four Republicans abstained, while six Democrats voted in favor of the legislation.

“The controversy will not end in this chamber,” Rep. Martin Daniel said. "If we pass this, we're going to be ridiculed."

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, a Republican, said “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Pilgrim's Progress” are books and calling the Bible a book is wrong in itself.

“It's not just a book,” Sexton countered during the hour-long debate on Wednesday, according to AP. “I base my life, my ministry and my family on this book.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam (Office of Governor, State of Tennessee)The governor agrees with Hazlewood. “It would be my hope they vote against it,” Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said in an interview with AP.

“My faith is the most important thing in my life to me,” he added. “But I also know from history that anytime the state has gotten tied in with the church, it hasn't ended well for the church.”

Haslam won’t, however, say whether he would sign the legislation should it reach his desk.

To get there, the bill would need to pass the Tennessee Senate as well. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris opposed it in committee, and told the Tennessean he hopes it doesn’t pass the full chamber.

“I sure hope it won't pass. I think it'll be a dark day for Tennessee if it does,” Norris said. “All I know is 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.”

Constitutional concerns raised over similar proposals in Mississippi and Louisiana caused lawmakers there to drop those measures in recent years, AP reported.

Before the House vote, several representatives debated over whether it might be legally safer to name a specific person’s Bible as the state book, according to the Tennessean. The bill that passed does not name which version of the holy book ‒ Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, etc. ‒ will become the state’s literary symbol.

Rep. John Ragan (R) introduced an amendment that would name President Andrew Jackson’s Bible as the state book. But Reps. Matthew and Timothy Hill, brothers as well as Republicans, questioned why Ragan chose a Democrat’s Bible. Matthew Hill suggested using Elvis Presley’s Bible, while his brother advocated for Davy Crockett’s. Ragan countered that neither of the Hills’ Bible proposals belonged to a US president.

The House voted 48-41 to kill Ragan’s amendment.

The Senate is expected to vote on its version on Thursday. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the upper chamber, 28 to five.