(Published in the Bartlett Express (a Memphis-area weekly) on Feb. 20, 2020.)
A proposed bill to anoint the bible as the “official state book” in Tennessee is not only unconstitutional, it is also an affront to true religious freedom.
A few state legislators recently introduced Senate Bill 2696, which would designate “The Holy Bible” as the “official state book.” Back in 2016, then-Gov. Bill Haslam properly vetoed a similar bill. This bad bill should not be resurrected. Haslam exercised his veto four years ago after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery noted that it violates both the federal and state constitutions. The Tennessee Constitution specifically guarantees “that no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” What could show more preference than having a state legislature designate one religion’s so-called holy book as its official “state book”?
This bill is part of the playbook of Christian nationalists who reject America’s revered separation between religion and government — and seek to impose Christianity on all citizens. Imagine the uproar and consternation that would attend the introduction of a bill to designate the Quran as Tennessee’s “official state book.” It is equally contrary to our nation’s religious freedom to single out the Christian Bible.
Under the First Amendment, citizens are free to choose any “holy book” they like, or none at all — the choice of the 26 percent of the American population that is currently religiously unaffiliated. The Bible contains violent, sexist and racist modes of behavior that some citizens find questionable. The United States was not founded on the Bible or any “holy book,” but on our secular and godless Constitution, which grants sovereignty not to a deity or a “holy book” but to “We the People.” The Founders were well aware of the horrors of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the witch hunts, and the persecution of various faiths in the individual colonies. That’s why they wanted no part of religion in government.
This proposed bill is fiscally irresponsible, as it would almost certainly result in a preventable lawsuit that would cost state taxpayers dearly. The General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee back in 2016 estimated such a lawsuit could have cost Tennessee more than $100,000.
Religious faith is a matter for private conscience, not state endorsement. In his decision upholding the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge of Christian indoctrination in Rhea County public schools in Tennessee, Chief U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar of Chattanooga wisely noted: “A state-created orthodoxy puts at grave risk freedom of belief and conscience, which is the sole assurance that religious faith is real, not imposed.”
The Tennessee Statehouse needs to stop attempting to foist Christianity upon the residents of the state and start working to address their real needs.