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What's wrong with sending Washington lawmakers free Bibles?

Free Bibles for members of Congress inspire a protest
A Republican House member says the Bible offers the 'best advice' for legislators
Members of Congress aren't schoolchildren who need to be protected from religious coercion

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, does good work — I won’t call it the Lord’s work — in calling out violations of the 1st Amendment’s religion clauses. But his latest shot is a misfire.

Lynn has criticized Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), an assistant majority whip, for mailing a Bible to every representative and senator. The Good Books had been donated by one of his constituents.

“Our staffs provide us with policy memos, statistics and recommendations that help us make informed decisions,” Palazzo wrote. “However, I find that the best advice comes through meditating on God’s Word. Please find a copy of the Holy Bible to help guide you in your decision-making.”

Lynn wasn’t edified by the congressman’s gesture.

“When a politician calls for using the Bible as the basis for public policy, what he or she is really saying is, ‘Let’s use the Bible as I interpret it as the basis for public policy,’ ” Lynn said. “When it comes to religion, our nation is pluralistic and diverse. Rather than look to the Bible or any other religious book to craft our nation’s public policy, we would do well to examine another source instead, one that was actually created to guide governance. It’s called the Constitution.”

I agree that the Bible is not a template for federal legislation. (I don’t want to see the Book of Leviticus codified by Congress — though the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a bad inspiration for social policy.)

But senators and representatives get input from all kinds of sources — ancient and modern, sacred and profane. And they aren’t children, unlike the public school students the Supreme Court has protected from official prayers and Bible devotions. Lynn’s priggish protest over a friendly gesture from one member of Congress to his colleagues plays into the conservative narrative of a war on religion.

Lynn’s concerns didn’t exactly resonate among members of Congress, including those most likely to object to majoritarian religious bullying.

According to TalkingPointsMemo.com, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim, responded to the free Bible with a thank you note.

Business Insider canvassed Jewish members of Congress about Palazzo’s gift and failed to turn up any outrage. The publication quoted Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) as saying: “It’s always nice to have another copy of the holy scriptures, even the ones that my people don’t subscribe to.”

In that same ecumenical spirit, Sherman suggested that Bibles sent to members of Congress should be large-type editions.

“What Steve may not have focused on is many members of Congress are over age 60, and the ability of the bald caucus to read print this small is questionable,” Sherman said.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

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