Bill to Make Bible Tennessee's Official State Book Fails

by | April 17, 2015

By Andy Sher

Efforts to designate the "Holy Bible" as Tennessee government's official book failed in the state Senate Thursday after the controversial bill, which had attracted national attention, was forced back to committee.

The GOP-dominated Senate voted to send the bill to the Judiciary Committee on a 22-9 vote, citing concerns raised in a legal opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. He opined it violates both U.S. and Tennessee constitutions' prohibitions dealing with religion and government.

Senate Republican leaders were opposed to the bill, which passed the House earlier this week on a 55-38 vote. GOP leaders in both chambers questioned its constitutionality as well as wanting to place the Bible in the state's official Blue Book beside various other state symbols like the salamander and the catfish as well as state songs like the bluegrass murder ballad "Rocky Top."

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, noted Slatery's legal opinion came after the measure emerged from the State and Local Government Committee.

"The attorney general's opinion raises legal issues that were not discussed," Norris said, later adding, "This isn't the time or place now in the full Senate floor to delve into that. We really need to look at it in committee."

He made a motion to re-refer the bill back to committee, prompting debate.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, disagreed with Slatery's legal opinion, saying it didn't take adequate account of later U.S. Supreme Court opinions allowing public displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses provided there was sufficient non-religious context.

His bill sought to make the Bible the state's official book based on its historical and cultural significance in Tennessee as well as economic importance with Nashville companies making the city a prominent publisher of Bibles.

An ordained minister, Southerland at times appeared emotional on the floor Thursday, his voice choking at one point.

"The Bible has great historical and cultural significance in the state of Tennessee," he said.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, later told Southerland on the Senate floor that he doesn't envision reopening his committee to discuss the bill. Lawmakers hope to adjourn next week.

Among those concerned about the bill was Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who has said the bill sullied what he considers "my Bible" by assigning it secular symbolism.

Speaking later, Southerland told reporters that while some sponsors had dropped off the bill because of Slatery's legal opinion, three others signed on.

"So we'll see next year," the lawmaker said.

(c)2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)