Like many other states, Tennessee has a state tree, a state flower, a state insect, two state songs and a state poem. But a bill making its way through The Volunteer State’s legislature this month would designate the Holy Bible as the “state book.”
The bill recites the importance of the Bible to the cultural heritage of the state, including its widespread use by families to record their lineages and vital records even prior to official state record-keeping. It also mentions that Bible publishing is a multi-million dollar industry in Tennessee with companies such as Thomas Nelson, Gideons International and United Methodist Publishing House located within its borders.
The bill, House Joint Resolution 150, was recently approved by a committee in the state House of Representatives and sent to the full chamber for an upcoming vote.
This is the third attempt by the legislature to make such a designation official. A 2015 bill did not gain the approval of both chambers. In 2016, the legislature passed such a bill, but Governor Bill Haslam vetoed it, saying “it trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text.”
And then there is the question being raised by some lawmakers as to whether such a designation is unconstitutional under both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions as an endorsement of religion by government, as a 2015 legal opinion from the state attorney general concluded.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Sexton, defends the intent behind the bill as a recognition of the profound impact the Bible has had on the state. He told the Tennessean, “What I’m trying to do is to be respectful toward everyone’s concerns, and just put the Bible where I feel like that it belongs.”
But other legislators are not sure about either the constitutionality of the bill or the appropriateness of the message such a designation would send. Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville said “It’s kind of hard for me to be caring and tolerant of my neighbors if I’m telling them my book is better than their book and it ought to be recognized by this state.”
No matter how the bill plays out – enacted or not – I think believers in Tennessee and elsewhere can all agree that what’s most important is seeing the message of hope and salvation within the Bible’s pages played out in the lives of individuals everywhere. No legislation could top that.
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