church and state hi res_newWritten by Don Byrd

[UPDATE 4/16: The Tennessee Senate voted 22-9 to send the bill to committee, effectively killing the measure, according to the Tennessean.]

Earlier this week I posted about the Tennessee bill making its way through the legislature that would name the Holy Bible the official state book. The state House of Representatives passed the measure 55-38 despite the Governor’s objections and the Attorney General’s opinion that the proposed law would violate both the federal and state constitutions. As I wrote at the time, the bill is both bad law and bad religion.

It is worth your time to read through the Attorney General’s opinion, which explains the problems inherent in giving a sacred text the implied approval of the state, and emphasizes the enhanced protections against such a move provided by the Tennessee Constitution.

Here is an excerpt (citations removed):

When the legislature chooses an official state symbol, it is in effect saying that the symbol, whether it be a poem, a flag, a rock, or a glass of milk, stands for and represents the State and its values in a positive way. For example, the legislation designating milk the official state beverage did so in express recognition of the many health benefits of milk, especially for the children of Tennessee. Thus, these designations of “official state symbols” inherently carry the imprimatur and endorsement of the government

Article I, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution provides “that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” (Emphasis added.) The Tennessee Supreme Court has characterized this constitutional protection against religious establishment as “substantially stronger” than the protection afforded by the Establishment Clause of the federal Constitution.

Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book—as an official symbol—of the State of Tennessee, when viewed objectively, must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion and of a particular religion. Irrespective of the legislation’s actual purpose, common sense compels the conclusion that designation of the Bible as the official state book in practice and effect conveys a message of endorsement. Such an endorsement violates the Establishment Clause of the federal Constitution, regardless of whether the message of endorsement is intentional or unintentional and regardless of whether the message is conveyed in reality or only in the public perception.

The bill, HB 615, is currently under consideration in the state’s Senate. Stay tuned. [UPDATE 4/16: The Senate voted to send the bill to committee, effectively killing the measure, according to the Tennessean.]