World & Nation

Tennessee’s governor vetoes Bible as state book

Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, vetoed a measure to make the Bible the state book.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

The official rock of Tennessee is limestone. Tennessee’s official wild animal: the rascally raccoon.

The official book? The Volunteer State doesn’t have one yet, and a Christian governor and Christian lawmakers are locked in a battle over whether it should be the Bible.

On Thursday, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill that would have added Christianity’s holy book to Tennessee’s list of official state symbols, and lawmakers have already threatened to override his decision.

Haslam likes the Bible perfectly fine. On his Facebook page, he lists his favorite books as “anything by Eugene Peterson or Philip Yancey,” two best-selling Christian authors.

In Haslam’s veto message to the Republican lawmakers who sponsored the bill, he wrote in defense of Christian beliefs, noting, “I strongly disagree with those who are trying to drive religion out of the public square.”

However, Haslam said, there’s that matter of constitutional law — the separation of church and state.

“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 book,” Haslam wrote. “Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run.”

(Haslam’s veto came a little more than a week after Idaho Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed a bill that would have allowed the Bible to be used in public schools for instruction, also citing constitutional concerns.)

In Tennessee, all it takes to override a veto are majority votes in both chambers of the Legislature, and the bill’s two Republican sponsors already signaled their intent to go around the governor.

Eighty-one percent of Tennessee’s adults are Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, and the state is familiar with battles over church and state. It was home to the legendary 1925 Scopes trial of a teacher on charges of illegally teaching evolution in school. He was convicted.

The Bible bill was introduced in 2015 but stalled in the Legislature. The attorney general issued an opinion saying it would be unconstitutional. The bill reemerged this March and was approved 55 to 38 in the House and 19 to 8 in the Senate.

An amendment suggested a preamble for the bill, which states that the Bible has “great historical and cultural significance” in Tennessee.

A series of “whereas” statements extols the Bible’s importance to the state, as in “whereas, printing the Bible is a multimillion-dollar industry for the state with many top Bible publishers headquartered in Nashville, including Thomas Nelson, Gideons International and United Methodist Publishing House.”

The amendment even alludes to this newspaper’s coverage: “whereas, even the Los Angeles Times has acknowledged the economic impact of the Bible in Tennessee.”

Conservative religious groups such as the Family Action Council of Tennessee supported the bill. “If the state cannot recognize its religious heritage without supposedly violating the Constitution, then our heritage will be lost and hostility toward religion will have replaced tolerance,” President David Fowler said in a statement.

The measure drew opposition based on spiritual grounds as well as constitutional ones. Haslam said that if the book is embraced as a cultural item rather than as a holy one, “my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible.” (If the Bible is approved as a state symbol, it would be added to a list that includes the Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle, the official state gun.)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee also objected. “Our position has always been that religion thrives when it’s left in the hands of families and faith communities,” said executive director Hedy Weinberg.

But if not the Bible, what tome would be appropriate for Tennessee’s state book? The Los Angeles Times asked some Tennessee literary figures for some recommendations.

Randy Mackin, director of the Tennessee Literary Project, suggested classics from Tennessee natives, including James Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” T.S. Stribling’s “The Store,” or something by poet Charles Wright. All three men won Pulitzers.

Niki Coffman, director of events and marketing at the independent bookstore Parnassus Books in Nashville, had a suggestion that all Tennessee might be able to embrace: “King of the Wild Frontier: An Autobiography by Davy Crockett.”

“He was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee and brought acclaim to the state,” Coffman said of the legendary congressman and frontiersman, who died at the Battle of the Alamo. “Davy Crockett. That’s the answer.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @mattdpearce