Editor’s Note: At press time on Monday, no date or time had been established for legislators to override the Governor’s veto of the Bible bill.
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
The bill was approved earlier this month by both the state Senate and House of Representatives.
According to The Tennessean, Gov. Haslam cited an opinion issued in 2015 by Attorney General Herbert Slatery that the bill 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.”
House sponsor Jerry Sexton of Bean Station disagrees.
He told the Baptist and Reflector last year (when the bill was first introduced but did not make it 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.”
Such a designation “doesn’t require that people read it any more than making ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ the state song would require people to sing it,” said Sexton, a former Tennessee Baptist pastor. “It is about recognizing the Bible’s historical role in Tennessee, and that history is undeniable.”
Senate sponsor Steve Southerland of Morristown also spoke to the B&R last year. He, too, said the bill “in no way” violates either document.
“This action doesn’t impose a religion on anyone,” he 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.”
Both Sexton and Southerland told The Tennessean they planned to lead an effort to override the Governor’s veto. It would take a simple majority in both the House and Senate to override the veto.
“I’m profoundly disappointed that Tennesseans have spoken but have not been heard,” Sexton told the Baptist and Reflector in a written statement on April 17.
He observed there are religious displays like the Ten Commandments by local and state governments, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled similar religious displays are constitutional. The Bible bill is no different, he said.
“The First Amendment doesn’t prevent our state from recognizing the vast impact the Bible has had in our state simply because it’s also religious in nature.”
Sexton pledged to work to get the bill overridden. The action has to take place this week as it is the Tennessee General Assembly’s last week in session.
If the veto is overridden, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to make the Bible its official state book, according to The Tennessean.
A poll conducted by icitizen April 1-4 of 513 registered voters in Tennessee ages 18 and older revealed that they favored making the Bible the state book by a 2-1 margin.
According to the icitizen website, it “is a community where you connect with your elected officials to be heard on the civic issues you care about.”
Randy C. Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, observed that the bill making the Bible Tennessee’s official book was appropriate for several reasons.
“We are disappointed in the Governor’s veto. However, 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.’
“Personal affirmation of the Bible and regularly reading the Bible is far more important than state-sanctioned recognition of the Bible,” Davis stressed.
“Living by the principles and precepts of the Bible and knowing the Jesus of the Bible brings purpose, peace, and joy,” he added.
David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee noted that throughout the 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 observed that he disagrees with the state attorney general who “did not issue his opinion on the legislation as passed but on the original version of the bill.” 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.”
Fowler noted the ball “is back in the legislature’s court.”