Gov. Bill Haslam Vetoes Bill Naming Bible State Book of Tennessee

A man reads the Holy Bible. |

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee scuttled a bill by lawmakers to designate the Bible as the official state book Thursday, noting that signing it into law would be in violation of both the First Amendment of the Constitution and the state constitution.

"I am vetoing House Bill 615, the legislation designating the Holy Bible as the official state book," Haslam declared in a letter to Beth Harwell, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

"As you know, last year the attorney general opined that designating the Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and Article I, and 3, of the Tennessee constitution, which provides that 'no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship,'" he said.

Haslam further noted that he personally feels establishing the Bible as the state book of Tennessee would also "trivialize" its reputation as a sacred text.

"In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill, my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text. If we believe that 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 Tennessee by designating it as the official state book. Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run," he noted.

"I strongly disagree with those who are trying to drive religion out of the public square. All of us should and must bring our deepest beliefs to the places we are called, including government service. Men and women motivated by faith have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate. However, that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our Constitution prohibits," he added.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee who had previously called on Haslam to veto the bill, praised his decision in a statement.

"We applaud Gov. Haslam for his leadership in sending a clear message that Tennessee values and respects the religious freedom of all Tennesseans. Religion thrives when it is left in the hands of families and faith communities. Publicly elected government officials cannot use their official positions to favor one religious belief over another. The governor's veto of this unconstitutional legislation ensures that religious freedom can flourish in Tennessee," she said.

Last Monday, the state Senate voted 19-8 in favor of the bill which was sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown. It was approved after 30 minutes of debate, according to The Tennessean.

Both Haslam and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery had previously raised questions about the constitutionality of the bill. Proponents emphasized the historic significance of the Bible and its religious meaning while opponents charged that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred.

If Haslam had signed the bill, the Bible would have joined 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.

Evangelist Franklin Graham, who serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, had encouraged Haslam to sign the bill in a statement on Facebook.

"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 Gov. Bill Haslam will sign the bill to make it official," he noted.

During an interview with The Christian Post in January 2015 about state lawmakers' attemps to make the Bible the official state book, Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, said he doesn't believe that establishing the Bible as the state book is a smart idea, no matter what percentage of the state claims to hold Christian faith.

"I am sure that they are well-meaning people who want to emphasize and want to underscore the role Judeo-Christian beliefs have played in American culture ... but this is a clumsy way of doing it and it is probably a bit too far," Land, who is also The Christian Post's executive editor, asserted. "The state is supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion. I think it could be argued that for the state to officially declare one religion's Holy Scripture to be the official book of the state would be putting the state on the side or giving preference to one faith over other faiths. I think that is probably unconstitutional."

Land adds that from a Christian perspective, designating the Bible as the state's book would mean that the state would have to concede that the book is just historical text, and nothing more, which would conflict with Christian beliefs that the Bible is way more than just a book.

"For those who are Christians, one can't be neutral about the Bible. The Bible, for many Americans, is sacred text," Land said. "It is the Holy Scripture. If you try to approach it as just a historical book. That is not neutral. To me, that [degrades] the status of Scripture."

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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