AG says Holy Bible bill violates federal and state constitutions

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill seeking to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee would violate separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a legal opinion Monday.

The opinion was issued to lawmakers a day before the full House was scheduled to vote on the measure sponsored by freshman Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton of Bean Station. (Note: The full opinion is HERE.)

“The Bible is undeniably a sacred text of the Christian faith,” Slatery wrote in the opinion obtained by The Associated Press. “Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book … must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion.”

Slatery cites the provision in the Tennessee Constitution that states that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religion establishment or mode of worship.” That requirement is “substantially stronger” than even the U.S. Constitution’s clause preventing Congress from establishing a religion, he said.

Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown and a lead sponsor of the measure, said he plans to move forward despite the legal opinion: “That’s his opinion. I’ve got a different one.”

Although Slatery’s legal opinion can’t prevent lawmakers from passing legislation, it means that the attorney general’s office would have to recuse itself from any litigation stemming from the law.

The legislation would place the Bible alongside other official state symbols, such as the tomato as the state fruit, the tulip poplar as the state tree, the Tennessee cave salamander as the state amphibian and the square dance as the state folk dance.

The state also has several state songs such as “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top.” All are listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, considered the definitive almanac of Tennessee state government.

Slatery said those state symbols “inherently carry the imprimatur and endorsement of the government.”

Slatery was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s former chief legal adviser before the Supreme Court appointed him attorney general last year.

The governor also has strong reservations about the bill, spokesman David Smith said.

“The governor doesn’t think it’s very respectful of what the Bible is,” Smith said.

Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville said he hopes the attorney general’s opinion will persuade colleagues to vote against the measure.

“They were dumbing down the Bible, trying to make it look like a history book to keep it secular, rather than sacred,” Norris said. “It’s a dumb bill and it needs to die.”

But supporters like David Fowler, the president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said last week there’s nothing belittling about the proposal. If anything, it highlights that “there is no book that has played the role in the history of Tennessee equal to that of the Bible.”

“This book has had more practical use, more historical use, and more economic impact in our state than any other book,” he said.

Similar proposals to make the Bible the state book failed in Mississippi earlier this year and in Louisiana last year.

Note: The AG opinion was not exactly unexpected. Below is a story appearing in Sunday’s News-Sentinel, by yours truly, on the anticipated opinion as the last hope for critics of the Bible bill — and debate over the measure generally.

NASHVILLE — Solid majorities of the state House and Senate have already embraced the notion of declaring the Bible shall become Tennessee’s official state book, perhaps leaving an anticipated attorney general’s opinion as the last hope for the bill’s critics.

The critics of Republican-sponsored HB615 include some of the state’s top Republican leaders — Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, for example.

“For God’s sake, think about where you’re headed,” Norris exhorted fellow members of a Senate committee.

But 68 members of the House have signed on as co-sponsors with Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, and 19 members of the Senate have done the same in support of Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown. In both cases, that is more than enough to assure passage in a floor vote. Fifty votes constitutes a majority of the House; 17 in the Senate.
“I understand the politics,” Norris said, urging legislators to simply abstain from voting on the bill since a no vote could be politically construed as “voting against the Bible.”

But only one senator followed Norris’ advice and joined him in abstaining in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. Indeed, only one legislator — Democratic Rep. Darren Jernigan of Nashville — has been recorded as voting no as the bill made its way through the House and Senate committee systems.

The House floor vote is now scheduled for Tuesday; the Senate vote could come the next day. If approved, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to proclaim the Bible as its state book. Similar proposals have been introduced in the Mississippi and Louisiana legislatures, but both failed.

Sexton and Southerland, who have both served as Baptist ministers, say the bill is simply to recognize the historic, cultural and economic importance of the Bible in state and national history, not to endorse a religious perspective in state law.

Doing so would raise the possibility of violating Article I, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution, which declares in part that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” The move could also run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against governmental involvement in religion, as interpreted by the courts.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery has been asked to opine on the bill’s constitutionality, Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, told members of the House State Government Subcommittee that he chairs. Informally, he said, “The attorney general did inform us that it was suspect and it could be challenged.”

“But he also wasn’t telling us which way it would go” when courts rule after a lawsuit is filed after passage, said Sanderson, who abstained on the vote in the subcommittee he chairs.

Legislators unhappy with the bill were hoping Slatery would issue his opinion last week. He did not, and now they hope for an opinion this week as the bill awaits floor votes, with lawmakers pushing to adjourn the 2015 session by next week.

Hedy Weinberg, who leads the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, says the bill “clearly” violates the state and federal constitutions and indicated the ACLU stands ready to file a lawsuit if the bill is enacted.

As introduced, the bill simply adds 11 words to state law: “The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book.”

A House committee revised that by adding an amendment, endorsed by Sexton, giving reasons for recognizing the “great historical and cultural significance” of the Bible — a move that provides, arguably, legal justification for the law in the event of a lawsuit and answers some of the criticism the bill has received.

Very little of the criticism so far has involved the constitutionality of the bill. A partial exception was Jernigan, who said he believes government should promote “inclusion” and the bill does not, although putting him “in a difficult spot as a Christian who believes in the Bible.”

Uniformly, other critics have focused — as Jernigan did partially — on the bill actually running contrary to their personal Christian beliefs, diminishing the Bible’s stature to something on the same level with all the state’s other official symbols.

“There’s nothing more important to me than my faith,” Haslam told reporters in Memphis last week, adding he had “spent time with the Bible” that day.

The governor, a Presbyterian, has said his first inclination as a profession was the ministry and that he now sees serving as governor as similar to being “senior pastor” of a church.

Haslam said the Bible should not be “relegated” to the same status as “the salamander as the official lizard or whatever we call the different things we have official in our state.” (The cave salamander is officially the official state amphibian.)

“I’ll say this thing, too, from the church’s standpoint. Whenever the church has become part of the official government, it hasn’t worked out well for the church,” Haslam said, as quoted by the Memphis Flyer. “We look around the world, and where the church is strong and where it’s not, and historically where it’s gotten to be a close part of the government, it hasn’t ended well for the church.”

House State Government Committee Chairman Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, before he abstained in a committee vote on the bill, said he was “not so much worried about offending another religion.”

Instead, Ramsey said he personally regards the Bible as “a very mysterious and special implement of the living God” and putting it on par with such things as “Rocky Top,” one of multiple official state songs, and a bill designating the Barrett Model 82A1 as Tennessee’s official state firearm — still pending in the Legislature — “somehow breaks my heart.”

“Rocky Top,” although a “wonderful song in many ways,” has verses that “glorify misbehavior” including “the killing of strangers,” he said. And the Barrett rifle, while “a wonderful invention,” is nonetheless a “mechanism created to do one thing — and that’s kill people.” Mixing such things with the Bible, he said, is inappropriate.

Senate Speaker Ramsey said the bill “belittles the most holy book that’s ever been written.”

Norris said the Bible, to him, “is sacred, not merely secular … more than a rock or a salamander.” (The official state rock is limestone.)

A group of religious leaders appeared before the Senate committee offering similar statements. Michael Williams, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, praised the sentiment behind the bill with some misgivings.

“I love the mocking bird (the official state bird), but it’s not the same as my Bible,” he said. “I love catfish (the 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.

Examples, he said, include the passion flower as the official state wildflower — 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 the state constitution now includes (in Article IX, Section 2) a provision declaring “no person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments” can hold civil office in Tennessee. The provision is no longer valid because of court decisions, but officially remains part of the state constitution, since it has never been repealed.

At the same time, Fowler said, “none of the future state of rewards and punishments will be affected by what you do” on declaring whether 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 they “loved this bill” because it effectively declares the Bible is “nothing but a book.”

Sexton said his bill is not ‘trivializing the Bible” in any way, and “I don’t believe you could if you tried.”

The amendment he supported in the House committee notes the state Library and Archives already contains a collection of old family Bibles, historically used by families to keep track of marriages, births and the like. Sexton brought a Bible dating to the 1800s with him to one committee session. That shows the historic relevance of the Bible beyond religion, he said.

The amended bill also makes comparisons to other now-recognized state symbols. An example:

“The tulip poplar was chosen as the state tree because, according to the Blue Book, ‘it grows from one end of the state to the other’ and was ‘extensively used by the pioneers of the state’ for practical purposes such as the construction of ‘houses, barns, and other necessary farm buildings,’ similar to how the Holy Bible is found in homes across the state.”

The amendment also cites other historic references to the Bible. It does not mention other pending proposals this year, perhaps most notably a pending measure (HJR71) that would add this language to the state constitution:

“We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God, our Creator and Savior.”

And there’s also SB202, already approved by the Senate 33-0 and awaiting final House vote Monday evening on the “consent calendar” reserved for bills that are non-controversial and presumed approved by acclamation. It declares that Tennessee will henceforth recognize the first Thursday in September every year as “Tennessee’s Day of Prayer Over Students.”

The ACLU, according to its website, is officially opposed to such a day of prayer.

UPDATE NOTE: The student prayer bill was approved 95-0 by the House Monday evening…. though it was not on the consent calendar.