Louisiana Debates Which Holy Bible to Make Official State Book

BibleIt's historical! (image: Kevin Eng via Flickr)

The Times-Picayune reports that a committee voted 8-5 to approve HB 503 on Thursday, so it will now be considered by the full Louisiana House. The vote came after a debate in which legislators grappled with difficult questions, in particular this one: which Holy Bible should become the official state book of Louisiana?

As introduced by Rep. Thomas Carmody, HB 503 provided as follows:

There shall be an official state book. The official state book shall be the Holy Bible, published by Johannes Prevel, (Prevel, Jean, active 1510-1528, printer. & Petit, Jean, fl. 1492-1530.) [sic], which is the oldest edition of the Holy Bible in the Louisiana State Museum system. The use on official documents of the state and with the insignia of the state is hereby authorized.

In other words, Carmody says he wants to make a specific individual Bible the official state book. He explained later that when he started thinking about which Bible should be the state Bible, he decided it should be the oldest one in the state. That’s apparently the one above. There are problems, though. For example, it doesn’t make any sense. How could you “use” any book (let alone one that is 500 years old) “on official documents of the state”? Are staples involved?

There’s another problem. According to Carmody, that particular book is privately owned, so—for a reason he didn’t specify—it can’t be an official state symbol. Carmody said he amended the bill for that reason, and the version he offered on April 10 looked like this:

There shall be an official state book. The official state book shall be the Authorized King James Version of the Holy Bible that is housed in the State Library of Louisiana.

Problem solved?

Turns out you can watch Louisiana’s committee meetings on the internet, and the video is available the same day. Not that most people would want to watch a meeting of the Louisiana House Committee on Municipal, Parochial, and Cultural Affairs, but you could. And I did.

First the really important business was taken up. Thornwell was declared “Yellow Rail Capital of the World,” and Grand Couteau was recognized as the state’s “Sweet Dough Pie Capital.” All lamented the witness’s failure to actually bring a sweet dough pie with her, but the resolution was adopted anyway. After several other matters, Rep. Carmody appeared. (This is about 20% of the way in, if you care.)

To kick off this part of the hearing, a staff member read the bill aloud. It was probably just coincidence that the bill to make a Holy Bible the official book of Louisiana was read aloud by Ms. Tina Righteous, but then maybe it wasn’t.

Carmody explained how the bill came to be. He said “a constituent” called and wondered why Louisiana had all these state symbols but no official state book. Why, that’s true, Carmody exclaimed. Well, he responded, let’s say we were to have an official state book. What book do you think would be appropriate? Why, the Holy Bible, said the constituent. And that’s just how it happened, boys and girls.

As you have probably realized by now, there is yet another major problem with Carmody’s amended bill, and when his statement was finished, Rep. Stephen Ortego lost no time in pointing it out. “Why the King James Version?” he asked. Wait, what? Somebody introduced a bill to make the Bible the official state book, and your first question is “why the King James Version?”

But yes. Ortego, who is Catholic, asked Carmody if his book wasn’t missing a few pages. He meant the “deuterocanonical” parts, which (as I have since learned) are things like the Book of Judith that are accepted by Catholics (and Orthodox) but not by most Protestants. I don’t know exactly which Bible they have in the State Library (they didn’t either), but it appears that an “Authorized King James Version” doesn’t have these books. In other words, Ortego had hit upon the basic problem: which “official Christianity” are we going to adopt?

Hold up, said Rep. Barbara Norton: what about other religions? She too was a Christian, she noted, but “We certainly don’t want to offend anyone … couldn’t we put something in there that refers to all religions?” Carmody didn’t think that was necessary, and he had an analogy to offer. It involved jelly. Our state has adopted various symbols, he said, and “just to use one particular [example], we adopted a state jelly … [and] after one state jelly was adopted, the state came back and added a second.”

This is not entirely true. Louisiana does in fact have two official state jellies, the mayhaw jelly and Louisiana sugar cane jelly. (Both can be “use[d] on official documents of the state.”) But they were both added by the same act in 2003. Carmody had no intention of letting a second jelly, I mean holy book be added to this bill, so his analogy didn’t really work. Norton had a different problem with it, though.

“Yes, I wouldn’t compare the two, jelly and Bible,” she told Carmody. “We’re talking about the Word of God.” Carmody had to bob and weave a bit here. His point seemed to be that adopting one official holy book didn’t mean there couldn’t also be another one, at some point, but not today of course.

I thought Carmody understood exactly what he was doing, but others honestly didn’t seem to understand what the problem might be. One legislator suggested they might amend the bill to make “all versions of the Bible” the official Bible. Another one agreed, saying, what about “the Holy Bible, period … according to anybody’s religion?” Or as Ortego told the Times-Picayune, “Let’s make this more inclusive of other Christian faiths, more than just the ones that use the King James version.” So we need to be more tolerant is what you’re saying?

This was really starting to hurt my head when finally Rep. Wesley Bishop spoke up. I’m a Christian too, he said, son of a preacher. But “as a state lawmaker and a lawyer, I can’t get around the argument of separation of church and state.” This is not Moby Dick we’re adopting here, he pointed out. “By adopting the Bible, we’re adopting Christianity. As a preacher, I don’t have a problem with that, but as a lawmaker, I do.” (Hallelujah!) Carmody, though, pretended he didn’t really know what the problem was. The bill doesn’t establish an official religion, he told Bishop. Just an official book. (The Bible.)

Okay, then how about we make “all books of faith” official state books, said Rep. Ebony Woodruff. “I would certainly be against that amendment,” Carmody said. He didn’t bother to explain why.

Ultimately, Ortego got his way. After a recess, he offered an amendment that changed it just to “the Holy Bible,” and as amended, the committee then voted 8-5 to report the bill favorably. So if it were to pass, the law would read “The official state book shall be the Holy Bible.”

Well, it wouldn’t be for long. This bill is already on the ACLU’s radar, and the law would have no hope of surviving the legal challenge that Rep. Bishop warned them all was coming. “I am so bothered by this bill that I just called my pastor,” he said. “My pastor just told me legally we have a problem with this.”

His pastor is right.

UPDATE: The bill, unsurprisingly, went nowhere.

See also Legislator Upset That Muslims Want to Use School-Voucher Program Too,” Lowering the Bar (July 20, 2012) (coincidentally, also involving Louisiana).