The governor of the U.S. state of Tennessee has vetoed a bill that would have made the Bible the state's official book. Lawmakers, though, can still override the veto with a simple majority vote.
In vetoing the measure, Governor Bill Haslam said he saw not only constitutional issues with the measure, but also said he personally feels like it would trivialize the Bible — which he called a "sacred text" in a letter to the speaker of the house.
"If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Then we shouldn't be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance." the Republican governor wrote Thursday. "If we are recognizing the Bible as a sacred text, then we are violating the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Tennessee by designating it as the official state book.
The veto came after the state Senate approved the bill earlier this month on a 19-8 vote.
Should the Bible become the state’s official book, it will join the state’s official fruit — a tomato — and its official wild animal — the raccoon. In February, the legislature designated the Barrett .50 caliber — a high-powered sniper rifle -- the state's official gun.
Official designations are usually a light-hearted, symbolic exercise meant to draw attention to unique aspects of a state, but the battle over the so-called “Bible bill” highlights the ongoing debate over the role of religion in government.
Republican lawmakers said the bill was not a government endorsement of religion but an effort to honor the Bible’s historical and cultural contributions.
“We’re recognizing that the only way that we can in the state of Tennessee,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Steve Southerland.
This is the second attempt by the Tennessee state legislature to designate the Bible as the official state book. Last year, legislative action on the bill was delayed and the State’s Attorney General found the bill violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”
FILE - A man holds up a Bible at a rally in Atlanta, Ga., Jan. 13, 2015.
Bishop Gene Robinson, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told VOA the legislature’s argument about the cultural importance of the Bible ignored the direct violation of the First Amendment.
“We do have language about religious institutions and not favoring one over the others,” he said. “This is an opportunity to teach the public about what our Constitution says and what it really means.”
A 2014 the Pew Research Center survey found 81 percent of adults in Tennessee identify as Christian compared to 70 percent of adults nationwide.
Robinson said the legislation is one of many bills coming up in state legislatures to address problems that don’t actually exist and that lawmakers could acknowledge the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States by passing a resolution acknowledging the Bible’s influence.