Mon. Apr 12th, 2021
It's back. Resolution to make the Bible Tennessee's official state book joins slate of religion legislation

Holly Meyer
 
| Nashville Tennessean
It’s back. 

Once again the controversial measure to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee is before the state legislature.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, recently introduced a house joint resolution, HJR 150, to add the Christian tome to the list of symbols and honors already in the Tennessee Blue Book. It is among a slate of religion-related legislation up for consideration this session.

It marks the third time such an attempt has been made, including the 2015 bill that resulted in one of former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s few career vetoes. Sexton, who declined to comment, has sponsored each effort. 

The previous attempts raised constitutional concerns about the state endorsing a religion. A national atheist organization objected as did Christians, like Haslam, who worried lumping the Bible in with the state bird, flower and rifle trivialized the sacred text.  

Similar to the explanation Sexton gave during a 2020 Bible bill debate, the new resolution emphasizes the role family Bibles have played in genealogy as well as the financial impact of Tennessee’s Bible publishing industry. 

The resolution also points out the religious connections of other items listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, which includes information about state government and history and is published by the Secretary of State’s office. They include the Christian symbolism associated with the passion flower, one of the state’s wildflowers, and the references to God in two of the state songs.

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Separation of church and state, but not religion and politics

So far this session, lawmakers have introduced other pieces of legislation that explicitly address religion. Some advocate for more religious protections amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic while others wade into the latest hot button societal issues.

Religious protections: Tennessee bill barring vaccination mandate with exceptions for health care facilities moves forward

COVID-19 reaction: How a flurry of Tennessee bills would reduce government control over masks, vaccines and gatherings

This is not new. State lawmakers regularly mix religion with policymaking. Sometimes it’s controversial. 

As examples, lawmakers have introduced measures advocating for more religious protections. Nationwide, the religious freedom debate often pits the rights of LGBTQ people against religious protections for conservative Christians. There has also been Islam-related legislation that advocacy organizations considered to be derogatory and some bills have been copycat legislation written by special interest groups and introduced across the country. 

“We have the separation of church and state — or at least we’re supposed to have the separation of church and state — but what that does not mean is the separation of faith and politics,” said the Rev. Clay Stauffer, a Nashville minister who teaches about the relationship between religion and partisan politics at Vanderbilt University. 

“What you have are a number of legislators who are bringing their faith into into the Senate and the House and are trying to push bills that will make their constituents happy.”

While Tennessee has religious diversity and an increasing number of people who are not affiliated with any faith tradition, the majority of the red state’s residents identify as Christian and so do its lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state legislature.  

People are concerned religious protections are being eroded, especially free speech issues, Stauffer said. But making the Bible the official state book could raise questions about whose freedoms are being protected and whose are not, he said. Stauffer, who agreed with Haslam’s take on the Bible bill he vetoed, wonders how giving the sacred text this special designation would make Tennesseans of other faiths feel.   

Other measures before the state legislature

Here are some of the religion-related bills and resolutions up for consideration this session: 

Senate Joint Resolution 55 proposes amending the Tennessee constitution to remove the ban on clergy serving in the state legislature. It is sponsored by Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon. 

While still on the books, the provision is outdated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that religious tests for holding public office are unconstitutional. Currently, there are members of the state legislature that are also ministers

However SJR 55 does not address the state constitution’s ban on atheists serving in public office. In 2014, the national group Openly Secular pushed to have Tennessee’s ban and similar ones in seven other states removed. 

HB 1137/SB 1197 would prohibit public officials and government agencies from placing restrictions on churches and other religious organizations during a state of emergency or other disaster. It is sponsored by Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma. 

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The Tennessee bill is similar to others being considered by state legislatures across the U.S., according to an analysis by the Deseret News. Restrictions on houses of worship became a contentious issue amid the pandemic. In recent court decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with houses of worship that challenged restrictions placed on religious gatherings amid the pandemic.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an order preventing limitations from being applied to houses of worship in the state. Prior to that, a Chattanooga church sued the city’s mayor over a ban on drive-in style worship services, but the mayor reversed course.  

HB 588/SB 597 would provide a religious exemption for jury duty. It is sponsored by Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald.

On Tuesday, Haston told the House civil justice subcommittee that he brought the bill on behalf of leaders of a Mennonite community in his district. The subcommittee referred the bill for summer study, effectively delaying the bill’s passage for the year.

HB 372/SB 193 would prevent the government from requiring employees to participate in trainings and seminars that go against their morals, ethics, values or religious beliefs. It is sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma. 

The Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group, has added the bill to its annual “slate of hate” list, raising concerns it would undermine inclusion training in the workplace. Diversity training for federal employees also became a target of former President Donald Trump’s administration.

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HB 859/SB 695 would bar social media platforms from saying in their contracts they censor religious or political speech. It is sponsored by Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, and Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains. 

Censorship on social media is receiving scrutiny. Trump and others have raised concerns conservatives are being unfairly targeted by the tech companies, according to a USA TODAY. But a recent report by New York University found there is no evidence to support that Facebook, Twitter or YouTube are doing so. 

Reach Holly Meyer at hmeyer@tennessean.com or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer. 

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