Bill to make Bible official state book of Tennessee advancing despite constitutional concerns

Despite concerns that giving the holy Bible the same status as a salamander is a little tawdry and could be unconstitutional, Tennessee lawmakers are forging ahead with plans to make it the official state book — something at least two other states have failed to do.

The Tennessee measure has moved swiftly through the legislative process and could be on the House and Senate floors as early as next week. Similar proposals to make the Bible the state book failed in Mississippi earlier this year and in Louisiana last year.

But Republican Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown, the sponsor of the Tennessee proposal, said he believes it has a strong chance to pass.

"It's got 19 co-signers on it; it takes 17 people to vote for the bill," he said Thursday

One of the main concerns is whether the proposal would meet separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions. The Tennessee Constitution says "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

Lawmakers are awaiting a legal opinion from the state's attorney general.

However, Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the proposal would violate the state and federal constitutions.

"The Bible should not be used as a political football," she said. "The First Amendment makes it clear that government cannot favor one religion over another and politicians should not try to influence what people believe by turning their personal religious viewpoints into law."

Tennessee's official state symbols already include the tomato as the state fruit, the tulip poplar as the state tree, the Tennessee cave salamander as the state amphibian and the square dance as the state folk dance. The state also has several state songs such as "Tennessee Waltz" and "Rocky Top." All are listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, considered the definitive almanac of Tennessee state government.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville is among some Republicans against the legislation. He said such a proposal "belittles the most holy book that's ever been written."

"That's silliness," he said. "It shouldn't be put in the Blue Book with 'Rocky Top,' salamanders and tulip poplars."

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville agreed.

"It reduces sacred scripture to nothing more than a secular symbol," he said. "They're diminishing it for a purely political purpose."

Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar is among nearly 70 lawmakers who are co-sponsors of the House version of the bill. Shaw, a minister, acknowledged it's a political and moral issue, and that some lawmakers support the legislation for those reasons. He said his support is reluctant.

"Being a pastor of 34 years, it was hard for me to say I won't sign a piece of legislation to make the Bible the state book," he said. "But at the end of the day, I think we would be moving in a direction that we really don't want to go in."

Supporters of the legislation say its intent is not to focus on religion but rather the Bible's historical and cultural contributions to the state.

David Fowler, a former Tennessee senator who is now president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a conservative advocacy group, testified in favor of the legislation during a committee meeting this week.

He told The Associated Press in an interview that the legislation is not belittling, but if anything, it highlights that "there is no book that has played the role in the history of Tennessee equal to that of the Bible."

"This book has had more practical use, more historical use, and more economic impact in our state than any other book," Fowler said.

Some Tennessee lawmakers last year sought to have the phrase "In God We Trust" displayed above the main Capitol entrances and behind the speakers' podiums in both the House and Senate.

But the measure was ultimately watered down to instead have the State Capitol Commission study the feasibility of painting the national motto in the tunnel connecting the Legislative Plaza with the Capitol.

The state adopted its official slogan "Tennessee — America at Its Best" in 1965. The words "Agriculture and Commerce" from the state seal were adopted as the official state motto in 1987.