More on legislature’s biblical debate

Committees of the House and Senate committee have approved a bill declaring the Holy Bible as Tennessee’s official state book despite objections from religious leaders — along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris — who argued that they may be demeaning the sacred book purported to be honored.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved the bill 7-0 with two abstaining. The House State Government Committee approved the bill (HB615) by a voice vote after adding an amendment.

“For God’s sake, think about where you’re headed,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in appealing for members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee to abstain from voting one way or the other on SB1108.

“I’m not asking you to vote against it. I’m asking you to pass (abstain). I understand the politics,” Norris said, acknowledging that a no vote would be construed by political opponents as “voting against the Bible.”

To himself, Norris said, the Bible “is sacred, not merely secular… It’s more than a rock or a salamander.”

Tennessee has a long list of official state symbols, including the state rock (limestone) and designation of the cave salamander as official state amphibian. Including the Bible in such a list, he said, is inappropriate.

A group of religious leaders appeared before the committee offering similar statements. Michael Williams, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, praised the sentiment behind the bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, and Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, but said it was misguided.

Southerland and Sexton, both speaking before the Senate committee, said the bill is not intended to advance one religion over another, but rather to recognize the Bible for his historic importance in guiding the culture and policies of Tennessee.

“My purpose to memorialize the role the Bible has played in Tennessee history,” said Southerland, noting both he and Sexton are Baptist ministers. Sexton echoed his remarks and contended that the bill in no way demeans the Bible, simply acknowledging it place in state history.

“I don’t believe you can diminish it (the Bible) if you tried,” Sexton said.

Williams, a Jewish rabbi and two other religious leaders appearing before the panel questioned that premise.

“I love the mocking bird (official state bird) but it’s not the same as my Bible,” he said. “I love catfish (official state commercial fish), but it doesn’t come close to the Holy Bible… To say it’s just a book of history is to mischaracterize something that to me has transformed my life.”

David Fowler, a former state senator now serving as head of the conservative Christian organization Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) testified in support of the measure, declaring that if he thought it was based on a belief that the Bible needs “validation of the state,” he would “oppose it with all my strength.”

But Fowler said the proposal recognizes “the economic and historical impact” of the Bible and, in many ways is no different than past symbolic recognitions such as deeming the passion flower as the official state wild flower – a recognition of Jesus Christ’s passion, he said – or the Ladybug as an official state insect. The Ladybug, Fowler said, has a Catholic heritage – so named by Catholic priests in the Middle Ages who credited the aphid-eating insects (“Our lady’s bugs,’ referring to Christ’s mother, Mary) with saving farmers from a plague of aphids eating their crops.

Fowler also noted that the state constitution also now includes (in Article IX, Section 2) a provision (though invalidated by court decisions) declaring that “no person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments” can hold civil office in Tennessee.

At the same time, he said, “none of the future state of rewards and punishments will be affected by what you do” on declaring whether or not the Bible will be Tennessee’s official state book.

Norris countered by declaring that, during Easter weekend this year, atheists held a convention in Memphis where participants said “loved this bill” because it effectively declares that the Bible is “nothing but a book.”

Southerland at another point said that Mississippi and Louisiana have both considered similar legislation. Norris noted that the measures failed in both states.