Tennessee is poised to make history as the first state in the nation to recognize the Holy Bible as its official book.
After nearly 30 minutes of debate, the state Senate on Monday approved the measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, with a 19-8 vote, sending the legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.
While proponents stressed the historic significance of the holy book and its religious meaning, some opponents argued that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred while others stressed constitutional reservations.
Haslam and Attorney General Herbert Slatery have raised similar questions about the constitutionality of the legislation. Last year, Slatery issued an opinion suggesting the measure would violate separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions.
Southerland tried to allay those fears, arguing that his bill relies on the historical and cultural impact the Bible has had on the state.
“The Holy Bible is a history book,” he said, quoting comments he received from a Jewish friend, during an at times emotional plea in favor of the legislation.
Arguing against the measure, Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, said he believes the measure would degrade the Holy Scriptures.
“The Bible is a book of history, but it is not a history book to be placed on the shelf,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, noted that when lawmakers are sworn into office, they place their hand on a Bible while making an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions.
“I understand that it’s hard to vote against the Bible — no one wants to do that,” he said. “We have an obligation to follow the Constitution.”
Speaking in favor of the legislation, Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, said he understood the difficulty of the decision his colleagues were making.
Roberts shared a story about George Washington’s inauguration, which he said was filled with religious references.
“The very founding of our nation — the very form of government that we have today — was put forth by men of faith, based on their faith, based on what they read in Holy Scripture,” he said.
Roberts, who voted in favor of the bill, said he was torn on the issue because he was tired of those who have tried to make the country a secular nation, while he also questioned whether he wanted to put the Bible next to other state symbols.
“This book has done more to bring us to where we are today than any other book in the history of mankind,” he concluded.
The legislation generated one of the more interesting votes of the 2016 session, with the chamber’s Democrats and Republicans equally split on the issue.
Two Democrats — Sens. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, and Sara Kyle, D-Memphis — joined the 17 Republicans who voted in favor of the bill. Six Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, sided with two Democrats — Yarbro and Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis — to vote against the measure.
Five Senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — did not vote on the measure.
After the session ended, Ramsey reiterated his concerns about the bill.
“This is much more than a history book,” he said, adding that should Haslam veto the legislation he is unsure whether there would be enough votes to override it.
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