House Divided, But Signs Off on Holy Bible as ‘Official State Book’

After two days and hours of debate, the Tennessee House has voted to designate the Holy Bible as the official state book.

The General Assembly’s lower chamber approved House Bill 615, sponsored by Bean Station Republican Jerry Sexton, a retired minister, despite a deep, nonpartisan divide among members about what doing so would mean for the Volunteer State, and whether designating the ancient religious text as such will run afoul of clauses prohibiting religious establishment in the state and U.S. constitutions.

house vote on bible as state bookThe House voted 55-38 to approve the measure. Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley, abstained from the vote, as did Republican Reps. John Forgety of Athens and Bill Sanderson of Kenton. East Tennessee Republicans Marc Gravitt of East Ridge and Ron Travis of Dayton were listed as not voting.

The hour-plus long Wednesday debate came after the measure got hung up Tuesday morning when calls for a vote kept getting rejected by lawmakers who wanted to keep deliberating.

In an attempt to address members’ issues with the bill, Oak Ridge Republican John Ragan on Wednesday morning proposed an amendment specifying the Andrew Jackson Bible as the official state book, but that amendment failed. Ragan argued that the former U.S. president’s bible was historically, culturally and economically significant to the state, and as it was given to Jackson as a gift in Connecticut at a time when the North and South were divided to help reconcile their differences, it had symbolic importance to the current debate.

Northeast Tennessee Republican brothers Matthew and Timothy Hill argued that Ragan’s amendment “muddies the waters” of the important debate. The House voted 48-41, with three abstentions, to table Ragan’s amendment.

Attention on the bill now shifts to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Steve Southerland, a pastor from Morristown. The upper chamber bill is scheduled for floor debate Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, both Republicans, have each voiced opposition to the bill.

A similar measure failed in the Mississippi Legislature earlier this year. And in 2014, a Louisiana lawmaker scrapped his own proposal to establish the Holy Bible as the official book of the Bayou State, saying it had become a distraction.

An opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery released Monday declared that designating the Bible as this state’s official book will likely be declared improper by the courts upon legal challenge.

Slatery wrote that such a move violates “the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and…the Tennessee Constitution, which provides ‘that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.'”

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