Tennessee Lawmakers Lose Bid to Make Bible the Official State Book

PHOTO:Members of the House of Representatives debate overriding Gov. Bill Haslams veto of a bill seeking to make the Bible the states official book, April 20, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee. The House voted not to override the veto. PlayMark Humphrey/AP Photo
WATCH Tennessee Lawmakers Lose Bid to Make Bible the Official State Book

Tennessee lawmakers today failed to override Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's veto of a bill that would have made Tennessee the first state to adopt the Bible as its official book.

Forty-three House members voted in favor of the bill, but supporters needed 50 to meet the threshold of the 99-member chamber. Both the House and Senate would need to a majority vote for the bill to become law. The Senate has not voted on the governor’s veto, but had approved the bill 19-8 earlier this month.

Haslam vetoed the bill last week, writing a letter addressed to the speaker of the House that “this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text. ... 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.”

When the bill was first introduced last year, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery expressed opposition and wrote an analysis on the constitutionality of the bill, noting that “Irrespective of the legislation’s actual purpose, common sense compels the conclusion that designation of the Bible as the official state book in practice and effect conveys a message of endorsement,” which he says violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

PHOTO: Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, speaks in favor of overriding Gov. Bill Haslams veto of Sextons bill seeking to make the Bible the states official book, April 20, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee. The House voted not to override the veto. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo
Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, speaks in favor of overriding Gov. Bill Haslam's veto of Sexton's bill seeking to make the Bible the state's official book, April 20, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee. The House voted not to override the veto.

Horatio Mihet, chief litigation counsel of Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, told ABC News there is a “gross misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause,” which he says requires “neutrality towards religion.”

Mihet, whose legal organization supports the bill, agrees with lawmakers who argue that making the Bible the official state book is based on the historical context affiliated with it, and “to say that the Bible plays an important role in society is not to trivialize it,” referencing family genealogy and historical aspects and events of the Bible “that can properly be taught in a public school.”

But opponents of the bill, including Michael De Dora, director of public policy for Center for Inquiry, a New York educational organization, have commended Haslam’s position. “To designate the Bible in this way would cheapen it. Involving it in political debates, I think leads down the path that the Bible becomes this political tool,” De Dora told ABC News.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, also agreed with the views of the governor and the attorney general.

“Privileging one religion over another, as they would be doing if they were to make the Bible the official state book, is clearly violating the Establishment clause to the First Amendment,” Weinberg told ABC News.

But Liberty Counsel’s Mihet believes the bill is “worthy enough to debate in public light,” and to better understand the Establishment Clause.

The ACLU’s Weinberg said she was confident that lawmakers would fail to override the governor’s veto: “Some legislatures supporting it the first time have a different response the second time around after having a reality check.”