Holy Bible will not be Tennessee’s official state book

© Carlo Allegri
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has vetoed a bill that would have established the Holy Bible as the state’s official book, though lawmakers are expected to try and override his veto.

The Republican governor said that making the Bible the official book would have violated the US Constitution’s mandate to separate church and state, and would have also trivialized it by placing it on the same pedestal as other official state designations, such as the official fruit (tomato) and state animal (raccoon).

READ MORE: Tennessee moves to make Holy Bible the official state book

"In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill, my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text," Haslam wrote in a letter to Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, according to the Tennessean.

"If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn't be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance," he added. "If we are recognizing the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Tennessee by designating it as the official state book."

The measure was originally passed by a 55-38 vote in the state House and a 19-8 vote in the Senate, though three lawmakers abstained for voting in each situation. It was approved despite state Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III saying such a move would violate the both the Tennessee and US Constitutions. The state constitution states that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”

“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 in his legal opinion. “Thus, these designations of ‘official state symbols’ inherently carry the imprimatur and endorsement of the government.”

Supporters of the push argued that the Bible would not be endorsed as a religious text, but only for its historical and economic impact on the state.

“The government’s adoption of the Bible as the state book would not be an endorsement of Christianity or Judaism or the contents of the book as religion,” said Roger Gannam of Libery Counsel, which offered to defend the state against any potential litigation over the issue, to the Tennessean. “But certainly could have adopted the Bible as a proper recognition of the influence it had on the foundations of Tennessee law and political thought.”

The sponsors of the bill, Senator Steve Southerland and House Rep. Jerry Sexton, said they planned to try and override Haslam’s veto. In Tennessee, where only a simple majority is required to defeat a governor’s veto, they may have a chance. They could lose four votes in the House and five in the Senate and still be victorious.

In his letter, Haslam said he disagreed with people who are “trying to drive religion out of the public square,” adding that faith can play an important part in public debate.

“However,” he said, “that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our Constitution prohibits."