Why Tennessee won't make the Bible its state book

But the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle will become a state symbol. 

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, left, speaks during the debate to override Gov. Bill Haslam's veto of a bill seeking to make the Bible the state's official book, Wednesday, April 20, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. The House voted not to override the veto.

Tennessee has a state reptile, a state rock and a state song in the moonshine-themed "Rocky Top." For now, though, the Bible will not be its official state book.

Gov. Bill Haslam had vetoed a bill that would elevate the holy book's status, and lawmakers trying to override that veto fell seven votes short of the 50 they needed in the House on Wednesday. Only 43 members voted in favor of the bill after two hours of spirited — and spiritual — debate.

The Republican governor last week turned back the bill over constitutional concerns and because of concerns the measure "trivializes" what he considers a sacred text.

Supporters argued that the measure seeks to honor the economic and historical impact of the Bible in Tennessee history, rather than a state endorsement of religion.

Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, a former Baptist minister who was the main House sponsor of the measure, urged colleagues to follow what he called the "will of the people" in rejecting the veto.

"It doesn't force anyone to read it, it doesn't force anyone to buy it, it doesn't force anyone to believe it," said Sexton, a former Baptist minister. "It's simply symbolic."

Six Republicans and five Democrats who voted for the bill when it passed last year did not support the override on Wednesday. They included Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Baptist pastor.

"We can put it all over the billboards of any corner in Tennessee, but if it is not in your heart we are doing nothing but mocking God," Shaw said.

Earlier in the session, the Legislature approved a resolution to add the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle to the state's official symbols, like the Tennessee cave salamander, the eastern box turtle and the channel catfish — plus nine state songs.

Lawmakers in both chambers had passed the bill despite a warning by the state's attorney general that it would violate both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions, the latter of which states that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

Haslam said in his veto message that elected officials' "deepest beliefs" should inform their decisions.

"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."

The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Tennessee Bible bill is part of 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.

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