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VOL. 39 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 24, 2015

Lessons of Bible lost in lack of health care debate

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Tennessee’s legislators spent hours this session arguing over guns and whether to pass a law making the Bible the state book of Tennessee.

In fact, the Bible bill took two days of debate in the House, where it passed, and thorough discussion in the Senate, before it died – at least until next year.

On the other hand, the General Assembly spent about one minute debating the merits of Insure Tennessee, a program proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam to expand coverage to some 280,000 people caught in a coverage gap between TennCare and the Affordable Care Act.

The day the Senate Commerce Committee killed Insure Tennessee, a group of advocates, many of them ministers, handed out Bibles to lawmakers throughout the Legislative Plaza. They didn’t take it to heart, even though the Bible speaks often of helping the poor, doing unto others and even turning your cheek to your enemy.

Throughout the House debate, numerous legislators showed no hesitation in proclaiming their Christianity and arguing the Holy Bible should take its place alongside the salamander and tulip poplar as a state symbol in the Blue Book.

Sexton

“It’s not my intent to bring this legislation to cultivate adherence to religious principles or aid in religious devotion,” says Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Bean Station Republican and member of Noeton Baptist Church in East Tennessee.

“Simply my purpose for bringing this legislation is to memorialize the role the Bible has played in Tennessee’s history and to acknowledge the impact that it has on Tennessee’s culture, music, literature and business industry.”

Debate focused on whether the Bible can be viewed as a historical book or as the divine word of God.

But Rep. Larry Miller, a Memphis Democrat, may have had the most appropriate message when he stood to speak on the House floor.

When a fellow lawmaker approached him and described a measure to make the Bible Tennessee’s official book, “the first thing that came to my mind, a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other hand,” Miller says.

Miller, too, says he is a Christian, but also acknowledges he is a sinner and adds, “I would imagine there are a few more sinners in this body.”

Newspapers are chock-full of articles detailing the Legislature’s imperfections.

“I’m a sinner, I’m a Christian. I try to reach the teachings of Jesus, of the perfect Bible, but I’m not gonna bring it down to my imperfect level for any reason and demean it. We demean it when we attempt to do that,” Miller says.

House members also discussed the possibility Tennessee could lose a legal challenge over the Bible designation.

After all, Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued a legal opinion stating the bill would violate the First Amendment and the Tennessee Constitution, which says, “No preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”

Senators ultimately used Slatery’s advice to push the matter off until next January when they can discuss the relevance of the attorney general’s opinion.

“While it may not be the government’s role to establish the Bible as the official state book of Tennessee, that does not lessen the value it has in the public forum. I am quite confident that the Bible’s distinguished place in history will not be diminished in the absence of a state’s endorsement,” Slatery states.

Of course, the AG’s advice couldn’t stop lawmakers such as Rep. Rick Womick, a Rockvale Republican, from accusing the American Civil Liberties Union and its “atheistic” leaders of mocking the bill’s supporters and trying to remove God from society.

Still others say America is facing an identity crisis as it kowtows to the Islamic faith in the midst of a worldwide religious war.

Gunfight on the Hill

As such, Miller’s reference to a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other was fitting for a session filled with efforts to allow people to carry guns openly, without permits and even in the state Capitol.

Several of those measures died.

But the House and Senate passed legislation allowing gun permit holders to carry their weapons in parks, including those next to schools, removing the right of local governments to prohibit them.

The bill leaves some people a little baffled.

For instance, if a gun permit holder carries a weapon into a park in “the immediate vicinity” of a school-affiliated event such as a baseball game, then the gun-permit holder must retreat, unless it is a non-school sponsored game such as a Little League tournament.

And if someone questions whether he is carrying a gun, he’ll be OK as long as he leaves “the immediate vicinity.”

Figuring out the definition of “immediate vicinity” will be left up to someone else, bill sponsor Sen. John Stevens, a Huntingdon Republican, explains.

“Immediate vicinity is not gonna be defined. It’s the immediate vicinity,” Stevens said after House and Senate members conferred on the measure.

“If you go into a specific feet or a specific thing, we’ve created a gun-free zone, and that’s not what we want to do.”

“We’re trying to create a situation where the lawful handgun permit holder is able to protect themselves but not interfere with school events.”

Stevens says someone playing tennis on a court in his hometown should be able to ward off any attackers with weapons.

Based on U.S. Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, Americans have a “fundamental right” to protect themselves, and even though there are limits in schools and government buildings, Stevens contends the law is necessary because in cases where the government can’t protect people such as in parks, as opposed to the state Capitol, people should be able to arm themselves for protection.

The legislation left Beth Roth, a Nashville member of Safe Tennessee Project, wondering how it would be handled or enforced.

“There’s been confusion from the beginning. I still think there’s a lot to be figured out. I’m a Mom. I have kids who go to schools that use parks. They are adjacent to the schools where they attend.

“There’s still a lot of ambiguity about how this law is going to be applied,” Roth says.

Even though Stevens says he would be perfectly comfortable with permit holders bringing weapons into the state Capitol, Roth points out Tennessee is ranked ninth in the nation for accidental shootings, and the Department of Safety revokes or suspends 1,500 handgun permits annually.

Lawmakers did remove the provision – dubbed a “poison pill” – allowing permit holders to carry their guns into the Capitol.

“I think it reveals we’re comfortable enforcing this rule on every local government in the state but not willing to subject ourselves to the same standards, and I think that’s obviously hypocritical,” says Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat who backed the “poison pill” amendment and also sought answers from Stevens on the effect of allowing guns in parks attached to schools. He feels he got no good answer.

So the bill passed, without Gov. Bill Haslam’s backing.

And absent support from the governor, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Bible bill will return in 2016.

During the Bible debate, at least one legislator wondered how Tennessee made it this far without a state book. In the absence of a good answer, maybe lawmakers will adopt a state bumper sticker next year: “God, guns and guts made America free.”

It would fit the National Rifle Association’s agenda and would have made a great resolution when the NRA gathered in Nashville earlier this month.

It can be displayed above the Tennessee-made Barrett .50-caliber, likely to be our new state gun.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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