By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has a state reptile, a state rock and a state song in the moonshine-themed “Rocky Top.” For now, though, the Bible will not be its official state book.
Gov. Bill Haslam had vetoed a bill that would elevate the holy book’s status, and lawmakers trying to override that veto fell seven votes short of the 50 they needed in the House on Wednesday. Only 43 members voted in favor of the bill after two hours of spirited — and spiritual — debate.
The Republican governor last week turned back the bill over constitutional concerns and because of concerns the measure “trivializes” what he considers a sacred text.
Supporters argued that the measure seeks to honor the economic and historical impact of the Bible in Tennessee history, rather than a state endorsement of religion.
Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, a former Baptist minister who was the main House sponsor of the measure, urged colleagues to follow what he called the “will of the people” in rejecting the veto.
“It doesn’t force anyone to read it, it doesn’t force anyone to buy it, it doesn’t force anyone to believe it,” said Sexton, a former Baptist minister. “It’s simply symbolic.”
Six Republicans and five Democrats who voted for the bill when it passed last year did not support the override on Wednesday. They included Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Baptist pastor.
“We can put it all over the billboards of any corner in Tennessee, but if it is not in your heart we are doing nothing but mocking God,” Shaw said.
Earlier in the session, the Legislature approved a resolution to add the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle to the state’s official symbols, like the Tennessee cave salamander, the eastern box turtle and the channel catfish — plus nine state songs.
Lawmakers in both chambers had passed the bill despite a warning by the state’s attorney general that it would violate both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions, the latter of which states that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”
Haslam told reporters after the vote that he was grateful that lawmakers had decided against an override of the veto.
“I felt like it trivialized the Bible to put it on the same level with the state bird and insect and so many other things we have,” Haslam said.
“The Bible is either the inspired Word of God or it’s not,” he said. “We shouldn’t honor it for one reason when it’s really for another.”