For all their furious devotion to the Constitution, Tennessee Republicans were rather quick to discard one of its core principles when it conflicted with their religious agenda. The Tennessee House voted on Wednesday to make the Bible the official state book. But the state’s Attorney General, Governor Bill Haslam, and the ACLU have all spoken out in opposition, disturbed at the grave violations of both state and federal Constitutions and the inherent attack on the separation of church and state that the bill represents. “[Designating] The Holy Bible as the official book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution” warns Attorney General Herbert Slatery, adding that he was “quite confident that the Bible’s distinguished place in history will not be diminished in the absence of a state’s endorsement.”
The bill, SB1108, which passed 55-38, has attracted a considerable amount of criticism from within the Republican’s own ranks, but crucially, not because it’s unconstitutional, but because it trivializes the religious text. Making the Bible the state book would add it to a list of official state icons, next to the Tennessee cave salamander and the UTenn fight song. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R) had a very dramatic take on the subject: “All I know is that I hear Satan snickering. He loves this kind of mischief…You just dumb down the good book far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol and you’re on your way to where he wants you to go.” Governor Haslam has expressed similar reservations but has not yet stated whether or not he would sign it.
Other lawmakers like Representative Marc Gravitt are more concerned that “Tennessee could spend millions of dollars in a losing effort to defend the measure if it becomes law”. The Attorney General’s office has stated it will not make any attempt to defend the state when, not if, litigation is filed against them. For there’s no question that it is severely unconstitutional and represents another petty effort by Republicans to test the waters and force the church into the state and federal sphere.
There’s a few of these cases every once in a while; Louisiana and Mississippi both considered and rejected similar bills last year. The Tennessee Senate referred the bill to committee on Thursday afternoon, putting the issue to rest until next year’s session. But without a doubt, Republicans across the country will continue to push at the boundaries between church and state, and we must stand vigilant at keeping one of our nation’s founding principles strong. No matter what Tennessee might think, America is a multireligious and multi-cultural nation, and we owe it to our citizens to keep religion in private sphere.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.