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Bible Could Join Tomato, Raccoon as Official Tennessee Symbol

FILE - Lawmakers in Tennessee are looking to make the Bible the state's official book.

Lawmakers in Tennessee are one step closer to making the Bible the southern state's official book, alongside the state's official fruit — a tomato — and its official wild animal — the raccoon. The move comes just weeks after the legislature's attempt to designate an official state gun — the high-powered rifle.

Official designations are usually a lighthearted, 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 — who passed the legislation in the state Senate by a 19-8 vote Monday — 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's establishment that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

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 in the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, speaks in favor of his bill to make the Holy Bible the official book of Tennessee, April 4, 2016.
Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, speaks in favor of his bill to make the Holy Bible the official book of Tennessee, April 4, 2016.

"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."

Cultural clash

A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 81 percent of adults in Tennessee identify as Christian compared to 70 percent of adults nationwide.

Robinson said this 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.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, said the bill wasn't "very respectful" because it places the Bible on the same level as trivial items like the state's official beverage — milk — and its official fish — the smallmouth bass.

Passage of the bill would mark the first time the Bible has been made an official state book.

Religious believers "feel that progressive social changes in the laws are threatening their way of life and they have a right to speak up," said Chad Pecknold, an associate professor at the Catholic University of America, who studies the intersections between religion and culture.

"But this is the wrong way to make that case," he said

Haslam has not said if he would veto the bill. It will automatically become law within 10 days of House and Senate speaker approval if he does not veto it.

Nearby controversies

Governors in the nearby southern states of Georgia and Mississippi faced intense protests recently over controversial decisions about religious-based legislation.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, on Tuesday signed into law a bill permitting churches, religious charities and private businesses to decline services to same-sex couples on the basis of their religious beliefs. The Republican governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, vetoed similar legislation last week under pressure from activists and businesses threatening boycotts.

Deal said he did "not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect [Georgia's] faith-based community."

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp

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