Effort to make the Bible Tennessee's official book bogs down

Friday, April 10, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 15

NASHVILLE (AP) - A proposal from a Republican lawmaker and former pastor to declare the Bible the official book of Tennessee is running into stiff opposition from top members of his own party, while the state attorney general is calling it unconstitutional.

Efforts to pass similar legislation in Mississippi this year and Louisiana last year were abandoned over constitutional concerns.

A sometimes raucous floor debate Tuesday followed a legal opinion issued by state Attorney General Herbert Slatery saying the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions in the state and federal constitutions. The House ended up delaying a vote on the measure.

The bill's sponsor, freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton, earnestly countered Slatery's opinion.

"This does not establish any form of religion, and any move to denounce it, I think, is to silence those of us who would like to see reverence given to a book that has played a role in all of our lives," said Sexton, a freshman lawmaker and former pastor from the eastern Tennessee community of Bean Station.

He said the bill's purpose is to "memorialize the role the Bible has played in Tennessee's history" in terms of its historical, cultural and economic impact.

In the written opinion, Slatery said in part, "The Bible is undeniably a sacred text of the Christian faith. Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book ... must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion."

Several opponents said they were uncomfortable with placing the Bible on par with state symbols, including the cave salamander as the state amphibian, the tulip poplar as the state tree and milk as the state beverage.

"It is unconstitutional and I believe it really diminishes what I believe are the holy Scriptures," said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. "I believe the sponsor of the bill is very sincere in what he's attempting to do, i t's just not something I would personally support."

Gov. Bill Haslam is among several other Republican leaders who oppose the bill.

"It would be my hope they vote against it," Haslam said in an interview at that state Capitol after the floor session. "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."

Other opponents include Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, challenged critics of the measure to come up with an alternative.

"We are not creating a theocracy, we are not creating an official state religion or a state church with this bill," he said. "If you don't think the Bible is the state book today, what is worthy enough to be the official book of Tennessee?"

Democratic Rep. Larry Miller of Memphis said h e opposes the bill for sending the wrong message in a legislative session that has also heavily featured efforts to loosen firearms restrictions in Tennessee.

"The first thing that came to my mind was a Bible in one hand, and a gun in the other hand," he said.

The legal opinion and mounting criticism of the measure appeared to be having some effect: A dozen House members dropped their co-sponsorship of the bill over the last two days. But that still leaves 57 sponsors - seven more than the minimum needed to pass legislation on the floor.

The House is expected to take up the measure again when it meets in its next floor session on Wednesday.