After passing the Tennessee House of Representatives on a close vote, a controversial effort to make the Holy Bible the official state book looks to have have died for the year in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Republican Mark Norris of Collierville, who had been indicating strong opposition to the measure for some time, successfully won a motion on Thursday to send it back to the upper-chamber Judiciary Committee, which has been closed for the year. The vote was 22-9.
Barring the unlikely event that the committee is reopened, which Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey of Germantown said he opposes, the bill won’t likely come up again until 2016.
Norris said he made the motion in response to an opinion issued earlier this week by Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery, who declared that designating the Bible as an official state symbol would violate both the federal and state constitutions. Slatery noted that both documents “prohibit governmental establishment of religion.”
The Senate sponsor of the Bible bill, Republican Steve Southerland of Morristown, attempted to refute some of the points offered in the attorney general’s opinion. However, Norris countered that any substantive discussions about a measure’s constitutionality or legality should occur first in the Judiciary Committee, which never had occasion to consider the bill prior to it coming to the floor.
A similar effort to send the House’s version of the Bible-as-state-book bill back to committee for the same reason failed in the lower chamber Wednesday. The House went on to approve the bill 55-38.
The GOP speakers of both chambers of the General Assembly, as well Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, have expressed opposition to the Bible push.
After the vote to send the measure back to committee, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Sullivan County issued the following statement in support of the action:
“No text is more sacred than the Holy Bible. I believe that the Old Testament is the inspired word of God and that the New Testament is the literal word of God. I believe that God’s only son, Jesus Christ, died for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. But our nation was built on a foundation of religious liberty that cannot be ignored. Attorney General Slatery’s recent opinion raises serious questions about the constitutionality of this bill. I am a Christian, but I am also a constitutionalist and a conservative. It would be fiscally irresponsible to put the state in a position to have to spend tax dollars defending a largely symbolic piece of legislation. We don’t need to put the Bible beside salamanders, tulip poplars and ‘Rocky Top’ in the Tennessee Blue Book to appreciate its importance to our state. Sending the bill back to judiciary for further review is the best course of action under the circumstances. The Bible is my official book but it need not be the official book of the state of Tennessee.”