NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The Tennessee state House ignored serious constitutional concerns – and the wishes of Republican leaders in Statehouse – in voting to make the holy Bible the official state book.
The chamber approved the measure 55-38 on Wednesday. It is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, a former pastor, who argued that his proposal reflects the Bible's historical, cultural and economic impact in Tennessee.
Tennessee's attorney general, Herbert Slatery, warned in a legal opinion earlier this week that the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions of both the federal and state constitutions.
Constitutional concerns raised over similar proposals in Mississippi and Louisiana caused lawmakers there to drop those measures in recent years. While Tennessee supporters acknowledged the likelihood of a lawsuit if the bill becomes law, several said it would be worth the expense.
"There are some things that are worth standing up for," said Rep. Andy Holt, a Republican. "Markets, money and military are meaningless without morals. I think it's time for our body to make a stand."
Several lawmakers raised concerns about putting the Bible on par with innocuous state symbols such as the official salamander, tree and beverage.
"'Pilgrim's Progress' is a book, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is a book," said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. "The Bible is the word of God, it's a whole a whole different level."
Supporters were dismissive of concerns raised during the floor debate.
"It's not just a book," Sexton said. "I base my life, my ministry and my family on this book."
Rep. Micah Van Huss said if the Bible becomes the state book, people won't be required to worship or follow Christianity.
"The dog and the cat are state symbols and nobody in Tennessee is required to purchase a dog or a cat," the Republican said.
Sexton said nothing prevents other works to be named official state books alongside the Bible. Tennessee, after all, has several state songs, he said.
The measure would need to be approved by the Senate before heading to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who opposes it. The governor wouldn't tell reporters whether he'd veto the measure.
Senate sponsor Steve Southland told the Citizen Tribune of Morristown that he expects the governor would allow the measure to become law without his signature. Haslam appeared surprised by Southerland's prediction.
"He must be reading my mind somehow – or attempting to," Haslam said. "That's definitely not coming from us."
Other prominent opponents of the measure include the Republican speakers of both chambers, Sen. Ron Ramsey and Beth Harwell, along with the Senate and House GOP leaders, Rep. Gerald McCormick and Sen. Mark Norris.
The Senate was scheduled to vote on its version on Thursday.