The United States is the only country in the world which neither restricts/regulates the practicing of minority or majority religions nor passes any religious legislation, proving that the church-state relationship in the US is unique in the world. However, as argued in this blog previously, this was not always the case. Religion and state were intertwined for decades at the sub-national level. For example, several US states had religious tests for public office (See American Secularism: A historical view of separation of the Church and the State in the US). Though attempts to link majority religion (Protestantism or Christianity) to the state never stopped in the US, one can detect a new enthusiasm to subvert religious neutrality enshrined in the US Constitution recently.
On April 14th, 2016, Tennessee Governor vetoed the bill to make Bible the official book of the state. Governor Bill Haslam wrote in a letter to the Beth Harwell, speaker of the statehouse, in which he rejected the arguments of the bill sponsors:
As you know, last year the Attorney General opined that designating The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution and Article 1, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution which provides that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."
In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill, my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text. 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. 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. Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run.
I strongly disagree with those who are trying to drive religion out of the public square. All of us should and must bring our deepest beliefs to the places we are called, including governmental service. Men and women motivated by faith have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate. However, that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our Constitution prohibits.
Is this bill had passed, Tennessee would have been the first state to have the Bible as the official state book. Even the veto was an achievement for bill's sponsors as, in 2015, a similar bill was passed by the House by failed to get the approval of the majority of Tennessee senators. The sponsors of the bill intend to press on and try to override the governor's veto, which only require a simple majority in both houses.
While arguments of those opposing the bill are well known and ably and succinctly presented by the Governor, it is interesting to take a look at the arguments of the bill supporters.
Roger Gannam, senior litigation counsel for Liberty Counsel, argued:
The government’s adoption of the Bible as the state book would not be an endorsement of Christianity or Judaism or the contents of the book as religion,” Gannam said. “But certainly could have adopted the Bible as a proper recognition of the influence it had on the foundations of Tennessee law and political thought.
Gannam said that Haslam’s reasoning was based on an “erroneous interpretation of the Constitution.” and called the governor’s veto disappointing. Liberty Counsel offered its legal services free of charge if the bill/law was challenged in courts.
David Fowler, a former Tennessee state senator and president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), gave four reasons why recognizing the Holy Bible as official state book is important:
- Having a state book is not unconstitutional and no book is more worthy of being Tennessee's state book than the Holy Bible: Regarding the constitutional debate, we need to begin with the acknowledgment there is nothing unconstitutional about having a state book. And as Rep. Matthew Hill said, if we’re going to have a state book, what other book could we name that has had the kind of historical, practical, and economic impact as that of the Bible? There is none.
- We should be neutral to religion, not hostile to religion: But if the constitutional point is that no religious text can even be entered into the debate, then I submit that we are not being neutral on the issue of religion. Rather, we are advancing secularism at the expense of religion. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked in a different Establishment Clause context: "[A] refusal to permit religious exercises [in schools] thus is … not … the realization of state neutrality, but rather … the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at least, … governmental support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private."
- The objective of Establishment Clause was not to divorce religion from the public affairs: Further, from a constitutional perspective, neither the “separation of church and state” referenced in a letter by Thomas Jefferson (and not found in the Constitution) nor the Establishment Clause were ever intended to divorce religion or its influence from the public square. As Supreme Court Justice, Harvard law professor, and author of the first comprehensive treatise on the Constitution, Joseph Story, wrote in 1833: "The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government."
- Bible is an important part of our heritage and forgetting one's heritage makes one gullible: Karl Marx once said, “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.” Mr. Marx was merely reflecting what God knew was true about us. It is why He constantly urged His people to set up memorials; they needed to remember who they were. Whether one was “right” or “wrong” before God in supporting or opposing the “Bible bill” I’ll leave for others to debate, but I am fully persuaded of this: there are many who would have us remove from our public life and the public square any recognition of our religious heritage. And perhaps they do so for the very reason given by Mr. Marx – it makes it easier for them to persuade us to do things that, in a different generation, knowing who we were, we would not do.
Some constitutional experts have contended that such bills are largely symbolic (having no effect on the lives of the people or on how the government was run) and, therefore, it would be difficult to challenge them and to declare them unconstitutional. For example, Douglas Laycock, Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a leading scholar in the areas of religious liberty, has argued:
Judges are likely to think that this is de minimis - to minor to care about. They don't tell the president that he can't issue Thanksgiving proclamations or host a national prayer breakfast, and judges are likely to view this the same way.
Keith Werhan, a constitutional law expert at Tulane University Law School, agreed,
You can promote religion so long as it doesn't rise to the level of establishing a church... Throughout history, the Supreme Court has not gotten worked about these types of things.
As discussed above, the fight for making bible as the state's official book of Tennessee is by no means over. The sponsors of the bill will try to override the veto next week. Similar bills have also been presented in other Southern states. The LA Times reported in January 2016 that two Democratic members of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Tom Miles and Michael Evans, were proposing a bill to make the Bible the official state book of Mississippi. In Louisiana, a similar bill was presented in 2014 but was later withdrawn by the sponsor, Rep. Thomas Carmody.