Tennessee Legislature Votes to Make Bible the Official State Book

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

From The Tennessean, April 5, 2016:

Tennessee is poised to make history as the first state in the nation [dumb enough] to recognize the Holy Bible as its official book.

Bracketed material added. Just to be clear, the stupidity lies not in the book but in the fact that this is about as unconstitutional as it gets, and so if the governor signs this bill the resulting law would immediately be challenged and struck down. So the legislators have simply laid the groundwork for spending public money to defend a bill that (as the state attorney general has already pointed out) is plainly unconstitutional, while alienating everyone in the state who doesn’t recognize that version of the Bible (or any Bible) as their official holy book.

Of course, Tennessee is not the first state to consider doing this. It comes up every now and then, most recently in Louisiana, where to my mild amazement the debate was not over whether to do it but over which version of the Bible would be appropriate. That’s what I mean by “that particular version”—the Louisiana bill would have enshrined the King James Bible, to which the Catholics on the committee objected because that one doesn’t have all their parts, and a debate ensued that was both ridiculous and a perfect example of why separation of church and state is so important. But here’s the thing—Louisiana didn’t actually go through with it. Those legislators made their political points and then sat down. Not in Tennessee, though.

Just the other day, the Idaho legislature passed a bill saying the Bible would be “expressly permitted” for classroom use, even though that law too violates the federal constitution and (even more clearly) the state constitution, as the AG’s office there also pointed out to no avail. That, too, would be a ginormous waste of time and money, but at least it stops short of making a religious work an official thing of the state.

Tennessee’s law would stick the Bible somewhere in Title 4, Chapter 1, Part 3, of the Tennessee Code, alongside such important state symbols as the raccoon; the delicious tomato; the Tennessee cave salamander; and “Sandy,” an ancient Native American statue dug up in 1939 and named the “official state artifact” in 2014. (Is there some irony in that last one? Probably, but it’s not unconstitutional.) And, in fact, some legislators objected to the bill because of that placement, saying it would tend to trivialize the book supposedly being respected.

That argument has limited appeal, though, because the role of the “official state thing” is not that clear. Sometimes they are trivial, but sometimes they are seen as important symbols. Sometimes they are in the actual statutes, and sometimes only in even-less-binding resolutions—that’s how the M82 .50-cal. sniper rifle became Tennessee’s official state rifle earlier this year. (Not coincidentally, it’s an election year.) More importantly, of course, it’s clear that in this case the point is not to trivialize the thing, but rather to make a symbolic point about the importance of Christianity. That’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do, of course, unless you are a government official trying to make it an official position.

Seven amendments were offered along the way, all of which I found amusing for different reasons. One said the Bible would be appropriate because, like the official state tree, it is “found in homes across the state” and is “‘used’ for practical purposes such as recording family histories.” See what he did there? Another said it’s not the Bible in general they mean, just the “personal Holy Bible” that once belonged to President Jackson and now resides in Tennessee. These are the kinds of tricksy arguments supporters of this kind of thing tend to make, although I bet if Muhammed’s personal Koran happened to be dug up in Tennessee, they would feel differently about a bid to make it the “official state historical book.” Just a guess.

Sen. Mark Norris, on the other hand, offered some amendments that were amusing for a different reason. The first one said that “the Holy Bible” would also include “the Torah, the twenty-four (24) books of the Tanach, as well as the additional writings that are central to the Jewish faith,” and the second one said “the Holy Bible” would also include the books used by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. As you can probably guess, those did not pass, and I’m sure he didn’t expect them to. Sen. Norris is a Republican, but also a lawyer with Adams & Reese, according to his bio, so I interpret these as trying to make a point about one of the reasons this is such a bad idea (a point that, of course, was ignored).

Also, his third amendment would have required the speakers of the House and Senate to jointly hire legal counsel, I assume at their own expense, to defend the constitutionality of the act, since the AG has already said it’s not constitutional and that he will not defend it. (Yes, that also failed to pass.) Sen. Norris also did not vote on the final version of the bill, apparently having wisely chosen to be out of town that day. So, yeah, I’m pretty confident in my interpretation here.