By Lucas L. Johnson II
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Bible usually unites Republicans in conservative Tennessee, but lately it is proving to be — as an epistle writer put it — more powerful and sharper than a double-edged sword.
Legislators here are deeply divided over a proposal to make the holy text an official state book, with some saying it’s far too sacred to be trivialized like the state fruit (tomato), the state amphibian (Tennessee cave salamander) and several state songs (“Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top”).
Conversely, others believe the Bible is an integral part of the state’s history, or don’t want to appear to be against it. And then there are a host of constitutional questions to consider.
Despite those problems, House lawmakers on Wednesday voted 55-38 in favor of the plan. On Thursday, the proposal was derailed when the Senate voted 22-9 to send it back to a committee that has been closed, effectively killing it for the year.
“I think some of these state legislators probably just don’t want to give their opposition an issue to run with,” Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer said.
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. Similar proposals in Mississippi and Louisiana failed for those reasons.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said the legal problems were his biggest hang up.
“The attorney general’s opinion raises legal issues that were not discussed,” he said of the bill.
Other opponents worried about putting the Bible on par with innocuous state symbols, which are listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, the definitive almanac of state government.
“We don’t need to put the Bible beside salamanders, tulip poplars and ‘Rocky Top’ in the Tennessee Blue Book to appreciate its importance to our state,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said in a statement.
Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, both Republicans, were also against it.
“I think it is unconstitutional and … I really think it demeans the holy word of God by making it just a book with historical significance,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw, a pastor, said the legislation made him uncomfortable, but for political reasons, he found it difficult not to support.
“It was hard for me to say I won’t sign a piece of legislation to make the Bible the state book,” he said.
Religion has surfaced as a point of contention in the state Legislature.
In 2011, a bill was proposed to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Sharia. It would have given the state’s attorney general authority to designate an entity a “Sharia organization” if he found the group knowingly adhered to Sharia.
The Senate sponsor of the Bible proposal made one last-ditch, impassioned plea for his colleagues not to kill the bill, to no avail.
“My purpose for bringing this legislation is to memorialize the role … the Bible has played in Tennessee’s history,” Sen. Steve Southerland said.