The tulip poplar is the official tree in Tennessee. The mockingbird is the official state bird, not to be confused with the official game bird. That would be the bobwhite quail. In its 219 years of existence, Tennessee has had at least 10 official state songs.
What it doesn’t have is an official book.
“This bill would recognize the Bible as the official state book of Tennessee based on its historical and economic impact on our great state,” said state Rep. Jerry Sexton, the legislation’s sponsor.
Sexton appeared before the House State Government Subcommittee this week to make the case for his bill. Bibles are often used to record family histories and genealogies. Printing and sales of the books have made them a “strong economic driver” in Tennessee. And he cited the Bible’s prominence in many homes across the state.
But the bill could lead some residents to believe that the state is recognizing a religion, according to state Rep. Darren Jernigan.
“I’m being put in a very difficult spot here as a Christian to vote against the Bible,” he said. “We need to be inclusive and not divisive in our manner because this does represent one religion, Christianity.”
It raises constitutional questions, both state and federal. Committee members have requested an opinion from the state’s attorney general about the bill, who informed them that it is “suspect” and could be legally challenged. The Tennessee Constitution states that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”
“I think we are a nation that is inclusive of everyone,” Sexton replied. “This isn’t about establishing anything, other than that we recognize the culture and history of our state and who we are as Tennesseans, who we are as Americans.”
Tennessee is not the first to consider making the Bible an official state book. Legislators in Mississippi tried to do it earlier this year but failed. Same goes for Louisiana, where a similar bill was pulled in 2014 after it became a distraction, The Times-Picayune reported.
Christianity is by far the most common religion in Tennessee. More than 85 percent of adults are affiliated with one of its denominations, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That figure is slightly higher than the national average of 78 percent.
Sexton’s bill has enough votes to pass if it can pass legal review and get to the floor. Sixty-seven lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors in the House, as have 19 in the Senate.
The text itself is quite brief. It reads, “The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book.” Many questions remain unanswered. For instance, the bill doesn’t say what kind of Bible should be used. Does the King James, New International Version or some other translation best represent Tennessee residents?
Might be a good topic to study over the summer.