As of this writing, in time for a print deadline of Tuesday at mid-day, the two chambers of the General Assembly have not had an opportunity to vote up or down on overriding Governor Bill Haslam's veto last week of the bill (HB 615/SB 1108) that would make the Bible the official "state book" of Tennessee. By the time, sometime Wednesday morning, that the first editions of the Flyer hit the street, the bill's fate will likely be known for certain.
The state House of Representatives, where the bill originally passed by a margin of 55 to 38, was expected to have an opportunity to override the governor's veto either late Tuesday or relatively early on Wednesday. The Senate, which approved the bill by a vote of 19 to 8, would have an opportunity to follow suit immediately thereafter. In either case, a simple majority is all that is required to sustain an override.
Whatever the case, the disposition of the veto — and the Bible bill — will, in effect, be the culminating act of this legislative session before adjournment.
So, readers, as you peruse this column, the matter of the Bible bill is, one way or the other, a done deal — though its chances, ultimately, of avoiding litigation and judicial overrule have always been questionable. It is hard to see how the endorsement by a state government of a particular religion's sacred text could stand a Constitutional test. But, just as they say on the ball field, where one side — on paper — is generally favored over another, that's why they play the game.
In any case, here, allowed to speak for themselves, are two remarkable statements on the measure — one by the governor in his veto message to House Speaker Beth Harwell, another by state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), during his chamber's debate on the measure.
HASLAM: "I am vetoing House Bill 615, the legislation designating the Holy Bible as the official state book.
"As you know, last year the Attorney General opined that designating the Holy Bible as the official book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution and Article l [sub-section 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 government 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.
"For these reasons, I am vetoing House Bill 615."
NORRIS: "I have made my discomfort with this bill known since it first appeared last year.
"I think my colleagues in the Senate, truth be told, are equally uncomfortable with the choice they are being forced to make. But I think they feel compelled not to follow their conscience but to choose primarily out of expedience.
"I have said that making the Holy Bible the official state book is sacrilegious. Passing this bill relegates it to a mere government symbol. As the smallmouth bass is the state fish, the raccoon the state mammal, the cave salamander the state reptile, the Barrett rifle the state rifle, the Holy Bible becomes the state book. I suppose it replaces what has traditionally been the state book — the Tennessee Blue Book. Perhaps we will soon see it printed with an orange cover to make clear the Bible is Tennessee's official state book and no other state's!
"Equally troublesome to me are the lengths to which the sponsors have gone to convince the General Assembly that this is 'alright.' They know that in order to withstand the likely judicial scrutiny that is to come the legislation must appear to be 'secular.' But it is not secular.
"Secular is the opposite of sacred. Merriam-Webster defines secular as 'not spiritual, of or relating to the physical world and not the spiritual world.' How can we say the 'Holy' Bible isn't related to the spiritual world? The sponsors and supporters of this legislation have stated: The Bible would fall into that 'symbolic' category if the Bible becomes the official book of Tennessee.
Making a book the official state book doesn't require that people read it any more than making 'The Tennessee Waltz' the state song would require people to sing it.
It is about recognizing the Bible's historical role in Tennessee, and that history is undeniable. This action doesn't impose a religion on anyone.
People don't have to read it, and they don't have to believe it. The bill doesn't even prescribe a particular version of the Bible. It is the most read and most sold book in history and its role in [Tennessee] history is undeniable.
"I have said of such statements that I hear Satan snickering at such talk. Convincing others that the Holy Bible is not sacred but, rather, secular, that it's a symbol of history rather than religion, that it doesn't have to be read or believed, is the stuff of Satan — not Holy Scripture.
"Voting for the Bible to become the state book on the basis that it's not religious but a symbol of history is like saying Jesus was a great teacher but not the Son of God.
"In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis posited a similar dilemma: I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
"So, too, I must make my choice: Either Jesus was the Son of God, or he wasn't. Either the Bible is the Word of God, or it's not.
"Adrian Rogers, one of Tennessee's most revered pastors, once said, 'It is better to ultimately succeed with the truth than to temporarily succeed with a lie.' The sponsor's sophistry is not the truth. Refusing to participate in this sophistry will ultimately lead to success. Perhaps not on this earth, but hereafter.
"Mark 12:17 says 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. And they marveled at him.'
"I choose to marvel at Him and His Word.