Why did Tennessee lawmakers designate the Bible as state's official book?

Both houses of Tennessee's legislature have passed a bill designating the Bible as the official book of the Volunteer State, over objections that the bill is unconstitutional.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Sen. Steve Southerland (R) of Morristown, speaks on Monday in favor of his bill to make the Holy Bible the official book of Tennessee, in Nashville, Tenn.

The Bible Belt just got cinched a notch tighter, as Tennessee's legislature on Monday passed a bill to designate the Bible as the state's official book.

If Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signs SB1108, the Bible will join the mockingbird, the tulip poplar, the channel catfish, the Barrett .50 caliber rifle, and the song "My Homeland, Tennessee" as one of the Volunteer State's many official symbols. 

The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Southerland, argued that the Bible plays a special role in history – both that of Tennessee and the Holy Land.

“The Holy Bible is of great historical and cultural significance in the State of Tennessee as record of the history of Tennessee families that predates the modern vital [statistical] records," Sen. Southerland said in his floor speech. "It 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 isn't wrong about the Bible's importance to the state's economy. Publishing is the leading industry in Nashville, often referred to as the "buckle on the Bible Belt," employing 12,000 workers, with gross annual sales of more than $600 million, half of it in religious publications.

Nashville also is the home of the largest Bible publisher, Thomas Nelson, and the world's largest Bible distributor Gideons International. The United Methodist Publishing House, which claims to be the largest church-owned and operated publishing and printing plant in the world, is also in Nashville.

The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union condemns the bill, calling it a "thinly-veiled effort to promote one religion over other religions," as well as an affront to those who practice no religion. 

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, says that the bill represents a response to increasing diversity in the state and the Supreme Court’s upholding of same-sex marriage.

“The rich and growing demographic diversity and the backlash against the equal marriage decision may be driving some legislators to put a big red stop sign up by filing bills that not only violate constitutional guarantees, but attempt to slow down progress and discriminate against individuals,” she says. 

In the past, faith-based legislative efforts have had varying degrees of success and longevity. For example, a similar attempt to make the Bible the state book in Louisiana in 2014 ended with the bill being pulled by its sponsors. Texas was more successful with its efforts to pay tribute to Christianity: In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush declared June 10 to be Jesus Day.  

Across the United States, seven US states still officially prohibit atheists from holding public office.

Last month North Carolina’s Republican Governor, Pat McCrory, signed a religious liberty bill prohibiting transgender people from entering any bathroom where the symbol on the door doesn’t match their birth gender. However, blow-back from the business community could mean a shortened lifespan for that legislation.

Linda Lemmon, executive secretary to the president of the Bible and Literature Foundation in Tennessee which, according to its website, has shipped 341,980 bibles to five nations so far this year, says in a telephone interview that she is pleased that the Tennessee Bible bill is headed to the governor for his signature.

 Ms. Lemmon who has lived in the state for 65 years, says she favors the King James version of the Bible, “I think it ought to be every state’s book, every person’s book.”

Asked her opinion about those who oppose mandating one religion for the state, Ms. Lemmon responds, “They tend to be against Christianity altogether."

“We’re in an atmosphere it’s not cool to be Christian,” she adds. “It’s not cool to serve your Lord. It’s not cool to mention Jesus.”

Not all opposition to the bill, however, is motivated by antipathy to religion. Democratic Senator Lee Harris said during the floor speech on the bill that the “effort to make the Bible the state book reflects a pattern to promote one view.”

“My constituents tell me they want to respect diversity of faith traditions in our state,” he said in his floor speech. “One in five Tennesseans are not Christian. In Memphis alone there are 8,000 Jews. I am a Christian but I do not think we should promote a bill that supports just a single religion.”

Lemmon, for her part, says that, “In America we have freedom of religion, but we don’t have freedom from religion.”

Legislators brushed aside the concerns of the state attorney general that the measure conflicts with the Tennessee Constitution which states that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

Sen. Ferrell Haile (R) of Gallatin, voted against the bill saying in his floor speech that the Bible was intended to be recognized by individuals and "not as a nation, not as a state."

Senator Haile used the Roman Emperor Constantine's actions in the 4th century as an example saying that government involvement "demeans" the Bible.

“In response to your questions I would like to offer that a life lived by the Bible will have a far greater impact than a bill passed,” writes the senator in an email response to being asked why he voted against the bill.

Senator Jeff Yarborough (D) of Nashville, said in his floor remarks that, “It’s hard to vote against the Bible. Nobody wants to do that. When we were sworn in here we placed our hand on a Bible, but we were not swearing to uphold that text.”

There has been no mention of which version of the Bible would be used and there has been no word from the governor on whether he will veto the bill.  

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