Tennessee Governor Vetoes Bill to Designate Bible as State Book

Haslam Credit Lance Cheung-compressed
Photo Credit: Lance Cheung

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican governor of Tennessee has vetoed a bill that would have designated the Bible as being the state book, asserting that the move is both disrespectful to the Scriptures and a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“[M]y personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text,” Gov. Bill Haslam, an elder at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, wrote in a letter to Speaker of the House Beth Harwell. “If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then we shouldn’t be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance.”

But, “If we are recognizing the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Tennessee by designating it as the official state book,” he opined on the other hand. “Our founders recognized that when the Church and state were combined, it was the Church that suffered in the long run.”

As previously reported, H.B. 615 had been introduced last year by Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, but after being approved by the House, it was shelved by the Senate, which sent the measure back to committee for further consideration after its constitutionality was questioned by Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

“The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book,” the bill simply reads.

The effort was revived this year by sponsor Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown. Last month, the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 7-1, sending it on to the full Senate for a vote, where it was approved 19-8.

In vetoing the measure on Thursday, Gov. Haslam pointed to Slatery’s doubts about the designation, and stated that while he is against removing Christianity from the public square, he believes that the Constitution bans the government establishment of a particular religion.

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“I strongly disagree with those who are trying to drive religion out of the public square. All of us should and must bring our deepest beliefs to the places we are called, including government service,” he said. “However, this is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our Constitution prohibits.”

Roger Gannam of Liberty Counsel told The Tennessean that Haslam’s understanding of the Constitution is incorrect.

“The government’s adoption of the Bible as the state book would not be an endorsement of Christianity or Judaism or the contents of the book as religion,” he said. “But certainly [the state] could have adopted the Bible as a proper recognition of the influence it had on the foundations of Tennessee law and political thought.”

Legislators are now considering voting to override Haslam’s veto.

Tennessee has a number of adopted state symbols that have been approved by the state legislature, as the tomato was designated the state fruit by the General Assembly in 2003, the Eastern boxing turtle was designated the state reptile in 1995, and the square dance was agreed upon as being the state dance in 1980. Tennessee also has several state songs, such as the “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top,” the latter of which sings of a girl who was “half bear, other half cat; wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop.”

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