Tennessee Poised to Name Bible Its Official Book after Naming High-Powered Rifle Its Official Gun

Wednesday, April 06, 2016
Sen. Steve Southerland (photo: Republican Party, TN)


By Katie Rogers, New York Times


Weeks after moving to name a high-powered rifle as the official gun of Tennessee, lawmakers in the state are keeping alive their prolific tradition of declaring official state designations by passing a bill that would make the Bible the state’s official book.


Do other states have state books?


At least two other states have considered state books. In 2003, Massachusetts designated “Make Way for Ducklings” as the official children’s book. And in Minnesota, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” was proposed as the state book in 1990.


In some ways, Tennessee’s newly nominated items continue a tradition: state lawmakers are active in adding new designations to their eclectic collection of official state symbols, some of which have been more controversial than others. Lawmakers tried to settle a popular botany debate by declaring the tomato the state fruit in 2003. The state has an official fish (the smallmouth bass, which replaced the largemouth bass in 2005), an official commercial fish (the channel catfish), and an official wild animal (the raccoon).


What was the argument for passing the bill?


The supporters of the bill, passed in the Republican-controlled state Senate with a 19-8 vote on Monday, say they’re doing nothing more than honoring a historical text.


During a Senate floor session on Monday, Sen. Steve Southerland, the Republican who sponsored the bill, argued that it is about honoring the Bible’s historical and cultural contributions to the state. He said that a Jewish friend of his had agreed the Bible is a historical text.


“We’re recognizing that the only way that we can in the state of Tennessee,” he said.


The legislation does not say which version of the Bible would be used.


Is there opposition to designating the Bible as a state book?


Yes. It has alarmed those who think it sets a dangerous precedent by closing the gap between church and state.


Both this bill and the one that would give a place of honor to a rifle with the power to take down a commercial aircraft are ways of playing “political football” with social issues, according to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.


“Most Tennesseans embrace and welcome the progress generated when unique individuals bring their distinct perspectives, ideas and voices to our state,” she said in an interview. “However, some people are very fearful of change, and feel that their way of life is somehow threatened simply because other, different ways of thinking about the world also exist alongside their own. Unfortunately some legislators are exploiting this fear, attempting to codify their own religious beliefs into law.”


According to a 2014 study on religious identities conducted by the Pew Research Center, adults in Tennessee overwhelmingly identify as Christian, but a growing number say they are non-Christian — or nothing at all. According to the figures, 81 percent of the adult population is Christian, with more than half of those evangelical. Three percent follow non-Christian faiths, 14 percent identify as religiously unaffiliated.


What happens next?


The bill will be sent to Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, to sign. It has also stoked debate among the state’s Republicans, some of whom say the bill risks diminishing the Bible’s standing as a religious text. Last year, the Senate sent the bill back to a committee, delaying legislative action, and the state’s attorney general, Herbert Slatery, issued an opinion that said designating the Bible as an official state book violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”


Southerland appeared to push back on Slatery’s opinion, emphasizing a 2005 Supreme Court decision that took historical context into account when allowing the display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state Capitol in Austin, Texas. But in another decision from that session, the court ruled that Ten Commandments displays hanging on the walls of county courthouses in Kentucky violated the establishment clause.


“We’re doing what we can, going as far as we can legally,” he said. “Not one step forward, not one step back.”


On Tuesday, the Family Council of Tennessee, a conservative organization that tracks bills affecting religious liberty, said that if a lawsuit arises and the state needs assistance, “we are willing to assist in legal representation,” according to Zack Pruitt, director of public policy for the organization. 


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