A group of conservative Tennessee legislators are pretty sure they have come up with a clever workaround to the constitutional separation of church and state, passing a law designating "the Holy Bible as the official state book" for its "historic" rather than religious value.
According to the Associated Press, both chambers of the state Legislature have signed off on the legislation, which was passed despite a provision in Tennessee's own constitution stating "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship." It now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who opposes the bill but has not taken a stance on whether he will veto it, for approval.
Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Southerland says the Bible "is a history book," reports the Tennessean. The AP further reported Southerland insists the legislation is not designed to promote the Christian religion, but instead to "[recognize it] for its historical and cultural contributions to the state." He added the Bible was not just a religious text, but a guide to ethics and economics.
But when it came to a 2011 Tennessee bill that sought to criminalize any members of a state-designated "Sharia organization" — despite the fact that the code of laws in the Quran is rarely invoked in the U.S. as anything other than a set of guiding historical, ethical and economic principles in civil mediation — Southerland sang a different tune. He voted in favor of the ordinance, widely interpreted as an attempt to crack down on private practice of the Islamic religion.
Critics of the new bill include both religious opponents who think the legislation trivializes Christianity's holiest text and those who view it as a thinly-veiled attempt to bypass constitutional restrictions on state religion, including Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.
Notably, the legislation does not specify any particular version of the Bible.
"Lawmakers' thinly veiled effort to promote one religion over other religions clearly violates both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions, as our state attorney general has already pointed out," ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg told the Tennessean.