Bible bill gets 7-1 vote from Tennessee Senate committee

An 1859 U.S. family Bible, December 2006. | REUTERS / David Ball

A Senate committee voted Tuesday, 7-1, to make the Bible Tennessee's official state book.

If House Bill 615/Senate Bill 1108, generally called the Bible bill, becomes law, then a section will be added to the Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 4, Chapter 1 -- a part that tackles Tennessee's state symbols. The proposed addition reads, "The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book."

There has been ongoing opposition, however.

"It's fundamentally wrong. I think it's sacrilegious," The Tennessean quotes Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris as saying. Norris, last year, recommended that the bill be sent to a committee, thereby curtailing its progress.

In April 2015, the constitutionality of the bill was already put in question. The Office of the Attorney General wrote in an opinon that the designation of the Bible as the state book would be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as Article I, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution. The latter specifies "that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

The opinion explains that if the Bible becomes the state book, it would be placed in the same category as the state flag, the Tennessee seal, the official state songs, among others, something that represents the state and its values.

"We are disappointed that Tennessee lawmakers have voted to use their official positions to promote their personal religious beliefs," Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said. "Selecting the Bible as the state book amounts to government promotion of one religion over other religions, which clearly violates both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions."

In a press release, also in April 2015, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III said that even if the state does not endorse the Bible, its "distinguished place in history will not be diminished."

The House approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, in 2015 with a 55-38 vote. It reached the Senate, which passed it on to the committee. It will be sent back for a full senate vote.

Tennessee governor Bill Haslam has not expressed if he would approve or veto the bill should it reach his office. WJHL reported that he has reservations.