Jan 27, 2012

Is the Bible the “word of God”? Pennsylvania House members apparently think so. They just passed a measure declaring exactly that.

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 535, a resolution designating 2012 the “Year of the Bible.” Introduced by Rep. Rick Saccone (R–Elizabeth Township) and 36 other legislators, the measure insists that “biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”

It also asserts that “renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people” and declares “our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.”

The resolution was dubbed “noncontroversial” so it could be brought to the House floor quickly and without committee hearings. It passed unanimously.

The measure is nonbinding, so it didn’t get much press attention. The only news account I saw was in the Examiner, an online publication.

Scranton Atheism Examiner columnist Justin Vacula questioned the constitutionality of the resolution and wondered what the reaction might be if the wording were a little different.

“One should wager that if Pennsylvania lawmakers were to pass a resolution calling 2012 ‘The Year of the Koran,’ noting that the Koran was 'holy scripture' that was the word of Allah, such a resolution would be problematic. Why not, then, concerning the Bible?

“Governmental entities,” he concluded, “ought to remain neutral on matters of religion.”

Vacula is exactly right. If church-state separation means anything at all, it ought to stand for the proposition that government stays out of religious debate. Lots of Americans believe in the Bible, but lots of others don’t. The Pennsylvania House has no constitutional authority to jump into a theological fray.

One of the great ironies of this situation is that Pennsylvania was founded as a refuge for those seeking religious tolerance. In his “holy experiment,” William Penn famously welcomed religious dissenters of many different stripes to his colony. He thought God, not government, was the “only Lord of Conscience.”

It’s a shame that today the Pennsylvania House has turned its back on that admirable tradition and sent a message of intolerance to those who do not share the majority faith.