Back in January, Tennessee’s Office of the Repealer – an entity created by the Legislature’s Republican Supermajority in 2013 to recommend stupid laws on the books that should be repealed – pointed out a statute enacted in 1828 that provides the following commandment for operation of state prisons:
“Each inmate shall be provided with a Bible, which the inmate may be permitted to peruse in the inmate’s cell at such times as the inmate is not required to perform prison labor.”
The Department of Corrections has ignored the law for decades, of course, since it’s almost certainly unconstitutional. Officials told the repealer office that, as a matter of policy, inmates can request a Bible and one will be provided – the same treatment as for other “religious material,” perhaps including a copy of the Quran. But prison wardens don’t issue a Bible to every prisoner as the statute dictates.
The repealer recommended trashing only one other law this year – a 1951 statute that sets specifications for marketing “fancy fresh eggs.” Seems the law predates the federal government mandate setting up egg classifications many years ago through the Food and Drug Administration. It has been ignored by the state Department of Agriculture, just as the biblical commandment was ignored by state prison overseers.
A bill jettisoning the old fancy eggs law (HB1733) zipped through the Legislature this year with virtually no comment and without any opposition. But nobody would touch the mandate for Bible distribution with a 10-foot political pole. Legislators unanimously ignored the repealer suggestion and no bill to repeal was even introduced.
Understandable, of course. No one wants to be seen as opposing spread of God’s word in any shape form or fashion. After all, as a recent National Conference of State Legislatures report stated, 96 percent of Tennessee legislators identify themselves as Christian, presumably reflecting generally the religion of voters who elected them. The remaining legislators were “unspecified,” meaning they didn’t proclaim their beliefs.
At lot of those Christian voters are categorized as evangelical by political pollsters and, by definition, evangelicals are dedicated to spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ to those who do not know it. Surely that’s what legislators had in mind back in 1828 when they mandated distribution of Bible to imprisoned sinners.
So the old statute was an overt expression of governmental preference for the Bible-based Christian faith. preference act. The same can be said for a still-standing provision in Tennessee’s constitution that says “no person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments” can hold elective office in the state of Tennessee. It’s been deemed unconstitutional, but it’s still there; nobody willing to try an ungodly repeal effort.
Today, we find the 109th General Assembly seemingly behaving as did the 16th General Assembly in 1828, presently poised to declare the Holy Bible as Tennessee’s official state book. Except that the sincere Republican sponsors of HB615, Sen. Steve Southerland of Morristown and Rep. Jerry Sexton of Bean Station, insist that is not the case. The bill, they say, is to recognize the importance of the Bible in the history of Tennessee and the nation, not to promote a religion.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery has opined to the contrary, deeming the bill an apparent violation of provisions in both the state and federal constitutions. The biblical sponsors disagree, drawing a parallel to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows government to display a part of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, so long as the display is presented as a historic document, not a religious one.
To make this point, the bill has a lengthy preamble reciting in the “whereas clauses” the Bible’s importance to Tennessee’s economy and history. It doesn’t mention the 1828 statute or the ban on atheists holding office. It does mention that the state already honors the ladybug as Tennessee’s official state insect has a religious connection in that “this beetle was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and called the ‘Beetle of our Lady’.”
In debate, most criticism of the bill is based on religious, not legal, concerns – indignation at the notion of putting a sacred text into the same category as proclaiming the salamander as the official state amphibian or “Rocky Top” as a state song. In other words, critics oppose on religious grounds; supporters defend on historic grounds, insisting religion is irrelevant.
Well, OK. One certainly wouldn’t suggest that anyone is bearing false witness here.
Debate has also included multiple references to the historic devotion the nation’s founding fathers showed for the Bible. But the founding fathers did not designate the Bible as the official United States book. And no other state has taken the step our legislature seems prepared to take.
So the sponsors are clearly correct: This would be historic.
Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.