NASHVILLE — Tennessee is poised to make history as the first state in the nation to recognize the Holy Bible as its official book.
After nearly 30 minutes of debate, the state Senate on Monday (April 4) approved the measure, sponsored by state Sen. Steve Southerland, with a 19-8 vote, sending the legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.
While proponents stressed the historic significance of the holy book and its religious meaning, opponents argue that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred.
Both Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris opposed the measure.
Haslam and Attorney General Herbert Slatery have expressed constitutional concerns regarding the legislation. Slatery issued an opinion last year suggesting that the measure would violate separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions.
If Haslam signs the bill, the Bible would join a list of state symbols such as the raccoon as the state’s wild animal, the Eastern box turtle as the state reptile, the square dance as the state folk dance, milk as the official state beverage and the Barrett M82 sniper rifle as the official state rifle, which lawmakers approved earlier in the session.
All state symbols are listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, an annual guide to state government.
Although the House narrowly approved the measure last year with a 55-38 vote, the bill was thought to be dead after the Senate sent it to a committee, effectively killing the legislation for the year.
The effort, however, was revived last week and was given approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held its final meeting for the year March 29.
To address the constitutional concerns, last year the House sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, tried to amend the legislation to make Andrew Jackson’s Bible the official state book, but that effort failed.
Haslam’s decision on whether to sign the bill into law will likely draw national attention.
Tennessee lawmakers are not alone in an attempt to make the Bible their official state book. Last year, legislators in Mississippi and Louisiana took similar approaches but ultimately failed to pass their version of the Bible bill.
In Alabama the Bible used to swear in Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederate States is the state’s official Bible, but not the state’s official book.
Other states have proposed or named official state books.
In 2003 Massachusetts named "Make Way for Ducklings" the official children’s book. Minnesota lawmakers once considered making Laura Ingalls Wilder’s "Little House on the Prairie" their state book.
It remains unclear whether opponents of Tennessee's Bible bill will take the issue to court should Haslam sign the measure.
Before the chamber's vote on Monday, ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said her organization is hopeful the governor will veto the bill.
Since becoming governor in 2011, Haslam has rarely used his veto power.
(Joel Ebert writes for The Tennessean.)