Tennessee could become the first state in U.S. history to recognize the Holy Bible as its official state book after the state Senate voted 19-8 on a measure to do just that and sent it to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown was approved after 30 minutes of debate in the state Senate on Monday, according to The Tennessean.
Both Haslam and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery have previously raised questions about the constitutionality of the bill. Proponents have emphasized the historic significance of the Bible and its religious meaning while opponents charge that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred.
"The Holy Bible is a history book," Southerland said, highlighting comments he received from a Jewish friend, during an at times emotional plea in defense of the legislation.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said when lawmakers are sworn into office, they place their hand on a Bible while making an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions.
"I understand that it's hard to vote against the Bible — no one wants to do that," he said. "We have an obligation to follow the Constitution."
If Haslam signs the bill, says The Tennessean, the Bible would join a list of state symbols such as the raccoon as the state's wild animal, the Eastern box turtle as the state reptile, the square dance as the state folk dance, milk as the official state beverage and the Barrett M82 sniper rifle as the official state rifle, which lawmakers approved earlier in the session. All state symbols are listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, an annual guide to state government.
While the debate about the measure ended in the Senate on Monday, it continued in the public sphere this week with some praising Tennessee's lawmakers while others are calling on Haslam to veto it.
"The Tennessee Senate just voted 19-8 in favor of a bill to designate the Holy Bible as the official state book. Way to go Tennessee! And I hope Governor Bill Haslam will sign the bill to make it official," wrote evangelist Franklin Graham, who serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, in a statement on Facebook Wednesday.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee said in a statement that local politicians had turned the Bible into a political football and called on Haslam to shut the door on the measure.
"Today Tennessee politicians have voted to reduce what is to many a sacred religious text to a political football. Lawmakers' thinly-veiled effort to promote one religion over other religions clearly violates both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions, as our state attorney general has already pointed out. While the Bible is an important book to many state residents, Tennesseans come from a rich diversity of faiths. Privileging one religion over another not only tramples on the Constitution, it marginalizes the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice religion at all. We call on Governor Haslam to veto this legislation," she said.