Senate to vote on making Bible official book of Tennessee

Friday, March 25, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 13

NASHVILLE (AP) — A contentious bill seeking to declare the Holy Bible the official book of Tennessee is headed back for a vote in the full state Senate.

The measure narrowly passed the House last year, but the Senate sent it back to committee amid constitutional concerns raised by the state attorney general.

Republican Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown revived the measure Tuesday, and it cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-1 vote. Southerland said it is aimed at highlighting the historical significance of the Bible in Tennessee, not as an official endorsement of a religion.

"The Holy Bible has a great historical and cultural significance in the state of Tennessee, as the record of the history of Tennessee family that predates modern vital records," Southerland said.

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery warned in his legal opinion last year that the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions of both the U.S. and state constitutions. Although Tennessee supporters have acknowledged the likelihood of a lawsuit if the bill becomes law, several said it would be worth the expense.

Opponents like Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, argued last year that the Bible is far too sacred to be trivialized by being placed alongside other official symbols like the state fruit, amphibian or rock.

"I am a Christian, but I am also a constitutionalist and a conservative," Ramsey said in a statement last year. "It would be fiscally irresponsible to put the state in a position to have to spend tax dollars defending a largely symbolic piece of legislation."

But Ramsey announced plans to retire from the Senate this year, which may have emboldened supporters of the Bible measure to take another shot at passing the bill.

If the Senate passes the measure, it would head for Gov. Bill Haslam's consideration. The Republican governor has also said he opposes the measure but has declined to say whether he would veto it.

Should the bill becomes law, the Bible would join the .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle in being designated state symbols this year. Lawmakers earlier this session voted to make the Tennessee-made gun the official state rifle of Tennessee.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said her organization opposes the bill.

"Selecting the Bible as the state book amounts to government promotion of one religion over other religions," Weinberg said in a statement.

"America is a place where people are free to practice religion, or not, without government officials deciding which beliefs should be endorsed," she said.