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VOL. 40 | NO. 18 | Friday, April 29, 2016

Did ‘people back home’ really sway no votes on Bible?

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I thought about skipping church Sunday and playing golf. After listening to the House of Representatives’ debate on the Bible bill, I could probably skip church for a month and still be in good standing.

They quoted more scripture that morning than most churches use in six months of services. In my years of churchgoing, I’ve found the fewer verses used the better, otherwise the congregation might lose the message.

But it seemed nearly every House member had a preferred verse to use in deciding whether they should override Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of the bill making the Holy Bible the official book of the state of Tennessee. One House member even sang from a favorite hymn.

In a letter to the House read as the session began that morning, Haslam cited an attorney general’s opinion stating such a move would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause by giving preference to religious establishment or mode of worship. He also wrote that the bill “trivializes” the Bible, which he feels is “a sacred text.”

“If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn’t be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance. If we recognize the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Tennessee by recognizing it as our official state book. Our founders recognized that when church and state were combined it was the church that suffered in the long run.”

Haslam’s letter stated he “strongly” disagrees with those trying to drive religion from the public square and wrote that men and women motivated by faith “have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate.”

But he also made it clear by saying he believes making the Bible the state book is a form of government establishing religion.

He faced disagreement, but his argument also left an impression on nearly two dozen House members who changed their votes.

What followed clearly shows Tennessee is not opposed to having Sunday school mix with government proceedings.

In introducing the override measure, Rep. Jerry Sexton primarily pointed out the Bible holds great historical and cultural value in the state with Tennesseans keeping records of births and deaths in families Bibles, the state Library and Archives containing Bibles with records of family histories and Bible publishing being a major industry.

He also spoke of missionaries seeing Crucifixion symbols in the passion flower, Tennessee’s state flower, and the people described as “simple, strong and reverent” in the state poem, “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee.”

Yet, Sexton, a Bean Station Republican, said he also would vote on the override the way he told his constituents he would, “on a moral stance” saying he was obligated to them and not to “the establishment.”

Ultimately and tipping his hand somewhat, he said House members would not be remembered for why they voted on the measure, but how they voted.

Rep. Micah Van Huss, a former Marine who sponsored the resolution this session making the Barrett .50-caliber Tennessee’s official state rifle, co-sponsored the Bible measure to overturn Haslam’s veto and asked the House, “When a cross is put on a veteran’s grave, does that trivialize the cross?”

Van Huss, a Republican from Jonesborough, spoke of moral decline and said God’s word searches for one man to stand in the gap. “If not now, when?” he asked.

And Tilman Goins, a Morristown Republican, argued the bill could not “diminish” the word of God.

“The best we can do is lift it up,” he said.

Calling it a “symbolic statement,” Goins pointed out Ohio’s state motto, “With God, all things are possible,” had been upheld in the courts.

Others contended the House needed to override to send a message to “militants” mobilizing a war against religion in America. Still others said the bill would not establish a religion, compel anyone to follow one religion over another or force anyone to read the Bible.

Quoteth Rep. Rick Womick, a Rockvale Republican, “Jesus said whoever denies me before men I will deny him before my father in heaven.” With that in mind, Womick said he wanted to make sure he voted the right way so he will be prepared to face God on Judgment Day.

What would happen, though, if God were to tell Womick, “Rick, render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

That very quote was used in the Senate by Majority Leader Mark Norris when the measure passed this year and went to the governor. It passed the House last year but would not meet the same fate again.

“I contend we do not have the authority to vote for this bill,” said Republican Rep. Steve McManus of Memphis, who pointed out the Constitution says no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment.

Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis reminded the body of a passage from the Book of Matthew in which Jesus exhorts people “not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Instead, he urges them to go into their “inner room, close the door” and pray in secret.

“God doesn’t need us up here to be seen making the Bible the book of Tennessee. He needs us to live by the principles of the Bible,” Parkinson said. “This is pure hypocrisy.”

One of those who might have made more of a difference than anyone in the debate was Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat who voted for the bill in 2015 and shifted this year.

“I can tell you what changed my mind, the book itself, not any individual, the book itself. Be not deceived for God is not mocked. Whatsoever man soweth that he will reap,” Shaw said.

“And to interpret that simply means that God puts different burdens on different people. And all of us don’t necessarily act accordingly the same way.”

He pointed out for people who want to know how to make the Bible their book, Psalms 119 gives instructions: “For thy word have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against thee.”

The Legislature could put the Bible in the Blue Book and post it on billboards across the state, but he warned lawmakers, if the word is not in their hearts, all they’re doing is “mocking God.”

Shaw and others contend the Legislature had not exactly taken care of the poor and weak by failing to pass Insure Tennessee, the governor’s plan to help some 280,000 people in a coverage gap.

Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat, said he wouldn’t lose his soul for anybody and pointed out what sends people to hell is their treatment of other human beings.

“Faith, without works, is nothing,” he said.

Finally, Shaw noted, “I’m glad that God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a Democrat and not a Republican.”

And after Sexton promised he would not “judge” any member based on their vote, the House voted 43-50 not to override the governor.

The vote reversed a 55-38 decision last year to make the Bible the state book, a difference of 12.

Why the change?

Rep. Glen Casada, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, voted yes both times but says he believes House members listened to constituents.

“I think they heard from people back home, and they just felt like it wasn’t good public policy for the state of Tennessee,” he says.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democratic from Ripley who blue-lighted the bill – present not voting but ultimately counts against – says he believes the governor’s veto “put a laser point” on the issue and made people reconsider.

“The two reasons he gave in his letter and the possibility of us doing something that’s against the Constitution and the possibility of us doing something that trivializes a very special part of most everyone’s heritage just got to be that enough of my colleagues rethought the issue,” Fitzhugh says.

“I think it was the veto that made everyone concentrate on it a little more than they did before. Frankly, I thought some of the arguments on the House floor were pretty telling that morning.”

Final analysis

Haslam vetoes are rare, and for one of the few times in his two terms he showed strength in the governor’s office. After all, it’s not easy to oppose a bill characterized as taking a stand for or against the Bible.

The House floor debate was opaque, with most proponents putting everyone to a religious test in a house where no religious test is to be allowed.

But here’s a major sticking point in this discussion: The Bible contains a whole lot of passages, and people tend to make of them whatever they want. Even Satan is a Bible expert.

And even as it is called the word of God, it has been misconstrued more than any book in the history of mankind. More wars have been fought and people maimed, massacred and killed with the Bible’s than for any other book in world history.

So regardless of where you stand on making the Bible the official book of Tennessee, make sure you find the right verse, as Rep. Shaw said, the one you can hide in your heart.

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

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