Tennessee ‘Bible bill’: State legislatures reflect rising Christian anxiety

The Tennessee bill to make the Bible the state book is the latest example of rising tension between the religious freedom and equal protection for all Americans.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor.
Will Tennessee adopt the Bible as the state book? Shaun Davidson holds his Bible as he listens to a discussion as part of the School of Christ program. The privately-run Metro Davidson County Detention Center in Tennessee offers faith-based programs for inmates who volunteer to participate.

A political campaign to safeguard biblical values heads next to Tennessee, where the Republican-controlled legislature could as early as Monday overturn Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of a bill that would have made the Holy Scriptures the official state book.

Governor Haslam, a Republican, nixed the bill on Thursday, saying it was disrespectful to equate the Bible with state symbols such as the channel catfish and the square dance. He also said he didn’t think enshrining the book as an official state symbol could withstand legal challenges, given the United States Constitution’s plain-spoken First Amendment admonishment against government establishing or endorsing any religion.

But in Tennessee, a simple majority can overturn a veto. The legislature is expected take up the Bible bill, along with a proposal that would force transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth.

Indeed, from bathroom bills to religious liberty laws, US courts are bracing for a fresh wave of challenges that will likely require fine-tuning the balance between religious freedom and equal protection under the law.

The red state legislative uprising since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage speaks to a deep cultural anxiety, as some of America’s Christian communities see their influence ebbing. As a result, individuals and groups are setting up legal pickets to defend what they believe are values under assault from an increasingly secular society and government.

“Religion … becomes a proxy for so many other things and to a degree much of this area of the law is symbolic,” Steven Green, the director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy in Salem, Ore., told the Tennessean newspaper this week.

As with other cases where groups are trying to assert religious freedoms that may infringe on other people’s rights, the Bible designation is likely to quickly face legal challenges from those who see it as a form of unconstitutional state endorsement of one religion.

Proponents say the designation doesn’t rise to that level, especially given that a number of Bible publishers – including Gideons International – are based in Nashville, Tenn.

“The Constitution requires government neutrality toward religion, but it doesn’t require the government to pretend religion doesn’t exist … [or to ignore its] influence on … Tennessee law and political thought,” Roger Gannam, whose Liberty Counsel nonprofit group last year defended Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis after she refused to sign same-sex marriage documents, told the Tennessean.

Seeking a balance

Legal challenges are piling up as America morphs into an increasingly secular, and pluralistic, society, that has seen the dramatic rise of the so-called “nones” – spiritual Americans who reject organized religion.

“The Christian share of the US population is declining, while the number of US adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” the Pew Research Center reported last year. “Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.”

The Tennessee lawmakers' effort to make the Bible the official state book is arguably the clearest expression of that anxiety.

“A legislative decree about Scripture’s importance conveys an unintended admission: The Bible isn’t central these days, at least not in the contemporary inner lives of millions,” writes Ray Waddle, the author of “Undistorted God,” in the Tennessean.

US courts have long struggled to balance religious interests with those of the state. President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act in 1993 to check the power of the state to impose its will on individuals with sincere religious beliefs. It was designed to bolster protections enumerated in the First Amendment.

Until recently, the RFRA played out primarily regarding government interests around land designated as “sacred” by native Americans. Under RFRA, the Supreme Court also upheld the right of native Americans to ingest peyote, an illegal drug, during religious rituals.

But the nature of these legal conflicts is changing.

Changing nature of religious liberty

The 2014 Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court found that, under RFRA,  the government could not force for-profit companies whose principals held deeply religious views to provide contraceptives to female employees.

But also in Hobby Lobby, "the Court made it clear that RFRA is not an automatic trump card for the faithful against all state action," O. Carter Snead writes on ScotusBlog

The Supreme Court's historic same-sex ruling last summer, however, unleashed a legislative backlash, especially in conservative states, where many Christians believe religion is not just being abandoned, but openly attacked by society and the government. That sense of duress has infused a variety of legislative attempts, including bills in 13 states that would force transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to their biological sex.

One legal problem, critics say, is that many of the efforts appear to be less about rights than privilege.

“As the prevailing culture turns further away from their beliefs and comfort zones, some Baptists and other conservative Christians are tempted to exert the last vestiges of their middle-class majoritarian power to pass … laws that protect their privilege,” Marv Knox, the editor of the Baptist Standard, wrote last week.

But for many Christians the legal implications are more fundamental to the ability, going forward, for religious people to freely express their faith in daily life.

“I’m concerned that we’re facing a significant challenge to the ability of churches and other faith-based institutions to remain theologically and morally faithful while fully and equally participating in civil society,” Joseph Knippenberg, a political scientist at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, wrote last year.

In Tennessee, the state attorney general issued a ruling last year saying the Bible bill undermines an essential Constitutional guarantee, that government “shall not” establish religion. “This is Tennessee, not Tehran,” columnist David Plazas agreed.

Yet two out of 3 Tennesseans support making the Bible the official state book, a poll found this week.

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