NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Derided by critics as everything from unconstitutional to sacrilegious, Tennessee lawmakers nevertheless plowed ahead with designating the Holy Bible as the state's official book.
Sponsors argue the bill seeks to honor the historical significance of the Bible in Tennessee's history rather than serving as a government endorsement of religion.
But opponents say the measure trivializes the Bible by placing it alongside other Tennessee symbols like the smallmouth bass as the state sport fish, the cave salamander as the state amphibian and the honeybee as the state agricultural insect.
"They know that in order to withstand the likely judicial scrutiny that is to come the legislation must appear to be 'secular,'" state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris said in a written statement Tuesday. "But it is not secular. Secular is the opposite of sacred."
Norris said trying to make the argument that the Bible is a historical symbol rather than a religious one "is the stuff of Satan — not Holy Scripture."
The state Senate's approved the bill on a 19-8 vote on Monday night, sending it to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who opposes the bill but hasn't said whether he will issue a veto.
"The Bible is the most important book in my life, and I think in the world," Haslam told reporters last week. "But that's very different than being the state's official book."
Once the bill reaches Haslam's desk, he has 10 days excluding Sundays to either sign or veto the bill, or it becomes law without his signature.
Spokesman David Smith said in an email "the governor has constitutional questions and personal reservations about this legislation," but that he will review the legislation before making a veto decision.
The state's attorney general warned that the bill violates both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions, the latter of which states that that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."
Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro challenged the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Southerland, an ordained minister, on whether he considers the Bible primarily as a religious or as a historical text.
"It's about a lot of different things," Southerland responded. "But what we're doing here is recognizing it for its historical and cultural contribution to the state of Tennessee."
Yarbro acknowledges "it's hard to vote against the Bible," but argues the bill is misguided for touting the economic role of Bible publishing in Tennessee or the fact that family histories were often tracked in Bibles before vital statistics were kept by the government.
"I don't think that's why we read the Bible, I don't think that's why we send our kids to vacation Bible school," Yarbro said. "To those of us who grew up in this faith, it is so much more."
In solidly Republican Tennessee, heavy doses of God and guns are considered reliable election-year politics.
The Bible bill came to a vote just days before the candidate filing deadline, giving lawmakers pause about being portrayed by political rivals as being opposed to the Bible if they voted against the bill.
Earlier this session, the Legislature approved a resolution to add the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle to the state's official symbols. The Murfreesboro-based company run by a prominent Republican supporter, Ronnie Barrett, supplies its firearms to law enforcement agencies, private citizens and more than 70 militaries around the world.
Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, called on Haslam to veto the Bible bill. She called it a "thinly veiled effort to promote one religion over other religions clearly violates both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions."
Southerland said an outside legal organization has offered to defend any lawsuits challenging the bill for free.
"So I ask you, what do we have to lose?" he said.