Should the Bible be a state book? Why the Tennessee Governor says no

Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill to make the Bible the state's official book, saying that it would trivialize the text. 

Mark Humphrey/ AP
In this April 13, 2016 photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam talks with reporters in Nashville, Tenn., on April 13, 2016 about a bill to make the Bible the state's official book. Governor Haslam vetoed the bill on Thursday.

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam (R) vetoed a bill Thursday that would have made the Bible his state's official book, a proposal that would have made Tennessee the first in the nation to do so. 

"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," Governor Haslam wrote in a letter to the state Speaker of the House. 

SB1108 was sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sexton, a retired Baptist pastor, and Sen. Steve Southerland, an ordained minister, who plan on mounting bids to override the veto next week. Of the three bills that Haslam has vetoed since taking office in 2011, none have been overturned by lawmakers.

In early April, Senator Southerland suggested that the Bible is as central to Tennessee's culture, history, and economy as country music. "[The Bible] records things like births, marriages, and deaths, and printing the Bible is a multi-million dollar industry in this state, with many top Bible publishers' headquarters' in Nashville," Southerland said in a floor speech.

Tennessee's capital city is home to Thomas Nelson, a Bible publisher, and Gideons International, the global Bible distributor known for placing free Bibles in hotel rooms.

Haslam said in his veto message that rather than exalting the Bible, the bill would actually reduce its significance. The bill "trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text," he said, adding that, "if we believe that the Bible is the word of God, then we shouldn't be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance."

Tennessee's attorney general, Herbert Slatery III, has warned that the bill violates the US and Tennessee constitutions. The Tennessee constitution states that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

Tennessee's official state symbols already include the channel catfish and the eastern box turtle, as well as nine songs like "Tennessee Waltz."

Haslam said that elected officials' decisions should be informed by their "deepest beliefs," the Associated Press reports.

"Men and women motivated by faith have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate," he said. "However, that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our constitution prohibits."

If lawmakers override the veto, Tennessee would be the first state to make the Bible its official book – but not the first to have tried to give in legal status. 

In early April, Idaho's governor vetoed a bill that would have permitted the Bible to be used as a reference text in nearly every school subject but science. Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter said that while he respected the Bible, the bill would have contributed costly litigation to Idaho's public school system. In 2014, Louisiana lawmakers pulled a bill to name the Bible the state book. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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