It looks like Tennessee could be headed for church-state trouble once again, this time with a bill that would make the Bible the state’s official book. The proposal is so bad, even the Tennessee attorney general thinks this legislation is problematic.
In an opinion obtained by the Associated Press (AP), Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery declared that the Bible bill would violate both the Tennessee and U.S. Constitution.
“The Bible is undeniably a sacred text of the Christian faith,” Slatery wrote. “Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book…must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion.”
He added: “No preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religion establishment or mode of worship.”
Slatery’s opinion was provided to lawmakers in the House of Representatives ahead of a vote on the measure, and he’s not the only high-ranking voice calling the constitutionality of the legislation into question. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is also no fan of the bill.
“The governor doesn’t think it’s very respectful of what the Bible is,” David Smith, a Haslam spokesman, told the AP.
Haslam isn’t exactly anti-religion. The AP noted he is an elder at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, and he has been an ally of the Religious Right on other matters.
But this Bible bill is something different, even to those of faith. The AP said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) both thought it would be offensive to include the Bible in a list of official state-sponsored things along with the state song (“Rocky Top”) tree (tulip poplar) amphibian (cave salamander) and even the state fruit (tomatoes).
“I mean the Bible is my official book, it is,” Ramsey said recently. “It shouldn’t be put in the Blue Book with ‘Rocky Top,’ salamanders and tulip poplars. I’m sorry; it just shouldn’t. And it may pass, I don't know. But I'll guarantee you one thing: When it comes to the floor, I'm voting against it. I think that belittles the most holy book that’s ever been written, in my opinion.”
To alleviate these concerns, State Rep. Jerry Sexton’s (R-Bean Station) proposal was amended in an attempt to play up the Bible’s “historically important role,” even though the Bible is not a foundational document for the United States nor did it greatly influence the Founding Fathers when they drew up the Constitution.
But few were satisfied by the change. At a recent Tennessee Senate hearing on the matter, several ministers and a rabbi opposed the measure.
And yet, some lawmakers don’t seem to be swayed by any of these opinions. Sen. Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), a sponsor of the legislation, dismissed Slatery’s concerns.
“That’s his opinion,” he told the AP. “I’ve got a different one.”
It’s fine if Southerland has another viewpoint, but he’s ignoring a very serious matter. If a state declares a religious text to be its official book, it sends a message that one religion is preferred over all others. It also makes clear that belief is preferable to non-belief.
The Constitution does not allow this, and given that so many religious and legal voices oppose HB 615, we are hopeful that it will not pass.