Bible vetoed as TN state book, hope for override

by Lonnie Wilkey/Baptist and Reflector, posted Friday, April 15, 2016 (one year ago)

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill April 14 that would have made the Bible the official state book, but the measure's sponsors are hopeful a veto override will occur.

Rep. Jerry Sexton and Sen. Steve Southerland, both Republicans, told The Tennessean they plan to lead an override effort, which would require only a simple majority in both chambers. The bill passed earlier this month by a 55-38 margin in the state House of Representatives and a 19-8 margin in the Senate.

An override likely would have to take place the week of April 18, which is expected to be the Tennessee General Assembly's last week in session.

If the veto is overriden, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to make the Bible its official state book, according to The Tennessean. A similar bill in Mississippi has died in committee each of the past two years, according to information on the state legislature website.

Randy C. Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said he is "disappointed with the governor's veto" though "Holy Scripture needs no human affirmation."

"The authority of the Word of God has not been diminished because a state hasn't declared it 'official,'" Davis said. "Personal affirmation of the Bible and regularly reading the Bible is far more important than state-sanctioned recognition of the Bible. Living by the principles and precepts of the Bible and knowing the Jesus of the Bible brings purpose, peace and joy."

According to The Tennessean, Haslam, a Republican, defended his veto by citing Attorney General Herbert Slatery's 2015 opinion that designating Scripture as the official state book could violate the state and federal constitutions.

"In addition to the constitutional issue with the bill, my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text," Haslam wrote in a letter to House Speaker Beth Harwell, The Tennessean reported.

Haslam wrote, "If we believe 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 are recognizing 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 designating it as the official state book."

Sexton, a former Tennessee Baptist pastor, disagrees.

He told the Baptist and Reflector last year when the Bible bill was first introduced but not reported out of committee, "Making the Bible our official state book isn't a violation of either our [Tennessee constitution] or the U.S. Constitution. ... To preclude the Bible simply because it is religious in nature is anathema to the First Amendment."

Designating the Bible the state book "doesn't require that people read it any more than making 'The Tennessee Waltz' the state song would require people to sing it," Sexton said. "It is about recognizing the Bible's historical role in Tennessee, and that history is undeniable."

Southerland told the B&R last year the bill "in no way" violates either the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution.

"This action doesn't impose a religion on anyone," Southerland said. "People don't have to read it, and they don't have to believe it. The bill doesn't even prescribe a particular version of the Bible. It is the most read and most sold book in history, and its role in [Tennessee] history is undeniable."

A poll conducted by icitizen April 1-4 of 513 registered voters in Tennessee ages 18 and over revealed a two-to-one majority favored making the Bible the state book.

David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, noted that throughout debate on the Bible bill, "we have said we understand why some believe, as the governor does, that the designation of the Holy Bible as the state book 'trivializes' its sacred character.

"We have also said that of all the books published or used throughout the history of the State of Tennessee, the Holy Bible has played a unique role both historically and economically," Fowler said.

The state attorney general, Fowler noted, "did not issue his opinion on the legislation as passed, but on the original version of the bill" from 2015. He added that if the state "cannot recognize its religious heritage without supposedly violating the Constitution, then our heritage will be lost and hostility toward religion will have replaced tolerance.

"Nevertheless, the legislature has spoken and so has the governor. Now the ball is back in the legislature's court, and, as before, we defer to their judgment in this matter," Fowler said.

Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist and Reflector of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. With reporting by Chris Turner, director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
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