Tennessee ‘Bible Bill’ Reflects Rising Christian Anxiety

Will Tennessee adopt the Bible as the state book? Shaun Davidson holds his Bible as he listens to a discussion as part of the School of Christ program. The privately-run Metro Davidson County Detention Center in Tennessee offers faith-based programs for inmates who volunteer to participate. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)
Will Tennessee adopt the Bible as the state book? Shaun Davidson holds his Bible as he listens to a discussion as part of the School of Christ program. The privately-run Metro Davidson County Detention Center in Tennessee offers faith-based programs for inmates who volunteer to participate. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

The Tennessee bill to make the Bible the state book is the latest example of rising tension between the religious freedom and equal protection for all Americans.

A political campaign to safeguard biblical values heads next to Tennessee, where the Republican-controlled legislature could as early as Monday overturn Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of a bill that would have made the Holy Scriptures the official state book.

Governor Haslam, a Republican, nixed the bill on Thursday, saying it was disrespectful to equate the Bible with state symbols such as the channel catfish and the square dance. He also said he didn’t think enshrining the book as an official state symbol could withstand legal challenges, given the United States Constitution’s plain-spoken First Amendment admonishment against government establishing or endorsing any religion.

But in Tennessee, a simple majority can overturn a veto. The legislature is expected take up the Bible bill, along with a proposal that would force transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth.

Indeed, from bathroom bills to religious liberty laws, US courts are bracing for a fresh wave of challenges that will likely require fine-tuning the balance between religious freedom and equal protection under the law.

The red state legislative uprising since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage speaks to a deep cultural anxiety, as some of America’s Christian communities see their influence ebbing. As a result, individuals and groups are setting up legal pickets to defend what they believe are values under assault from an increasingly secular society and government.

“Religion … becomes a proxy for so many other things and to a degree much of this area of the law is symbolic,” Steven Green, the director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy in Salem, Ore., told the Tennessean newspaper this week.

As with other cases where groups are trying to assert religious freedoms that may infringe on other people’s rights, the Bible designation is likely to quickly face legal challenges from those who see it as a form of unconstitutional state endorsement of one religion.

Proponents say the designation doesn’t rise to that level, especially given that a number of Bible publishers – including Gideons International – are based in Nashville, Tenn.

“The Constitution requires government neutrality toward religion, but it doesn’t require the government to pretend religion doesn’t exist … [or to ignore its] influence on … Tennessee law and political thought,” Roger Gannam, whose Liberty Counsel nonprofit group last year defended Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis after she refused to sign same-sex marriage documents, told the Tennessean.

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SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor
Patrik Jonsson

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