First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Tennessee, which already has an official state bird, state flower, state dance, and even a state firearm, but which may soon make the Christian Bible its official state book. The Tennessean reported this week:
After nearly 30 minutes of debate, the state Senate on Monday approved the measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, with a 19-8 vote, sending the legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.While proponents stressed the historic significance of the holy book and its religious meaning, some opponents argued that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred while others stressed constitutional reservations.
The constitutional argument against proposals like this is pretty simple: in the United States, the separation of church and state is a bedrock constitutional principle. As we discussed the last time a state went down a similar road, our government is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion – leaving decisions about faith in the hands of the people, not politicians – and for elected policymakers to specifically honor one religion’s holy text for an official endorsement would almost certainly run afoul of the First Amendment.
There’s also the matter of Tennessee’s state Constitution, which explicitly says that “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”
Taking one step further, however, other critics of the bill are also making a theological argument. For many Christians, the Bible isn’t just some symbol to be added to a list alongside Tennessee’s official state amphibian, state vegetable, and state beverage; it’s vastly more personal and more spiritually significant. The entire political effort, the argument goes, cheapens the Bible unnecessarily.
Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has expressed legal concerns about the bill, but as of Wednesday, said he was undecided about whether to sign the measure into law. Tennessee’s Republican state attorney general issued an advisory opinion last year arguing that state officials designating one religion’s holy text as the official book of the state would be plainly unconstitutional.
State lawmakers passed the bill anyway. We’ll find out soon whether the governor follows suit.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Pope Francis continues to reconsider old standards: “Pope Francis softened the ban on giving Communion to remarried divorcees Friday, issuing a major document that struck a new tone — but no new rules – on Catholic Church attitudes to family life.”
* Church-state separation wins a round in an unexpected place: “Idaho Gov. C. L. ‘Butch’ Otter vetoed legislation Tuesday that would have expressly permitted the use of the Bible in public school instruction, calling the measure unconstitutional.”
* The key detail to remember in this story is that the guy kept proselytizing, even after being ordered to stop: “An Indiana state trooper has been fired after drivers complained that he gave them more than tickets and a lecture about road rules after pulling them over – he also shared a little religion on the roadside, in one case asking a woman if she had ‘accepted Jesus Christ as her savior.’”