A bill to establish the Holy Bible as the official book of Tennessee has stalled in the House amid some of the more intense debate undertaken by the legislative body thus far this year.
The Volunteer State has joined the ranks of other state deliberative bodies — including New Hampshire and New York — who’ve also enjoyed boisterous debate over establishing an “official state” something or other in the past year.
In addition to being a controversial, yet bipartisan, issue among the rank-and-file legislators, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, both Republicans, have expressed their opposition, and Attorney General Herbert Slatery, also a Republican, issued an opinion Monday saying the proposal “would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution,” as well as the Tennessee Constitution.
And since that opinion, the measure has lost a dozen co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans and two Democrats.
According to the House Speaker’s office, members withdrawing their support for the measure include: Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin; Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby; John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge; Curtis Halford, R-Dyer; Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville; John Forgety, R-Athens; Art Swann, R-Maryville; Ron Travis, R-Dayton; Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol; Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville; Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, D-Memphis; and Harold Love, Jr., D-Nashville.
As soon as Freshman Republican Jerry Sexton of Bean Station finished pitching his HB615 Tuesday morning, Kenton Republican Bill Sanderson, chairman of the House State Government Subcommittee, moved to refer the bill back to his committee.
However, that motion didn’t reach muster, failing on a vote of 37 to 57, and the lower chamber spent the next hour deliberating over the legislation.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, a Nashville attorney, said while he respected the sponsor’s intent, he opposed the measure on the basis of his belief in the separation of church and state. “I just don’t believe this bill is headed down the right road.”
Likewise, Cordova Republican Steve McManus, chairman of the House Insurance and Banking Committee, touted his Catholic background before announcing that he too could not support the measure, as it violated the Tennessee Constitution’s provision declaring “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religion establishment or mode of worship.”
Sexton argued the intent of his bill wasn’t to establish a state religion, but to recognize the historical, economical and cultural significance the book has had in the Volunteer State.
However, he also noted that British Prime Minister David Cameron recently called the United Kingdom a “Christian nation,” and questioned how many Americans would have the courage to take the same stance.
Jonesborough Republican Matt Hill also argued that the “charges of theocracy” being made by several members had no basis in reality.
According to Hill, a religious broadcaster, “All (the bill) is attempting to do” is “state the obvious” — that the Bible has a significant impact on the state that should be recognized.
Hill argued that if the General Assembly wouldn’t name the Bible the official state book, “what in the world would it be?”
“What is worthy enough to be the official state book of Tennessee, but the Bible?” he asked.
Three times lawmakers called for the debate’s end and the vote to be taken, to no avail, and the House recessed with plans to return Wednesday morning to again take up the measure.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley told TNReport late Tuesday that the difficulty in getting the body to where it could vote on the proposal was partially because many members “want to justify their vote one way or the other.”
“It was quite unusual to have such a debate, because the debate heretofore on the floor has been short no matter what was involved,” Fitzhugh said.
SB1108 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Thursday.
Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.