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Tennessee Lawmakers Want To Make The Bible The Official State Book

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk a little bit about the importance of symbols. For that we go to Tennessee. Like most states, Tennessee has quite a few official state symbols - a state amphibian, a state official rifle. And there are no fewer than nine official state songs. Soon Tennesseans could add another state symbol. Lawmakers have sent Gov. Bill Haslam a measure that would make the Bible the state's official book. Chas Sisk with member station WPLN in Nashville is going to tell us more.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: In many evangelical churches across the South, Wednesday night means Bible study.

BILL WATKINS: We're going to be looking in 1 Thessalonians chapter three tonight.

SISK: Last Wednesday night at the Crieve Hall Church of Christ in Nashville, about a hundred people turned out an hour-long lesson led by a pastor who reads the New Testament from a tablet computer. Out in the pews is Ruth Pickens. She's a faithful student of the Bible, but she's not so sure making it Tennessee's official book is a good idea.

RUTH PICKENS: I mean, most people that are churchgoing people and believe in God and they believe in the Bible, they already honor the book.

SISK: Tennessee lawmakers in both chambers have approved a bill that would make the bible the state's newest symbol. The idea has broad support. A poll taken last year shows 60 percent of Tennesseans favor the move. But some of the strongest opposition has come not from liberals or from civil libertarians. It's come from religious conservatives, people who say the good book is too pure to be placed alongside the state bird and the state tree.

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BILL HASLAM: The Bible is the most important book in my life, and I think in the world. But that's very different than being the state's official book.

SISK: Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, has discouraged the idea since it was first proposed a year ago, though he hasn't said for sure yet whether he'll veto it. The state attorney general, Herbert Slatery, says the proposal is unconstitutional. He says it violates the Bill of Rights and goes against the Tennessee Constitution, which draws an even sharper division between church and state. The seeds of this debate go all the way back to the state's beginnings. Tennessee's founders believed strongly in the Almighty, but their piety was tinged with skepticism toward establish religion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERRELL HAILE: If indeed the Bible is God's inspired words, then we can do nothing to increase its value. But we can degrade it.

SISK: Republican State Sen. Ferrell Haile has been one lawmaker who's spoken out against the proposal. Opposition from conservatives like him forced its sponsor, an ordained minister named Steve Southerland, to perform a delicate dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE SOUTHERLAND: I can't make it a religious or history book. The Bible is what it is.

SISK: In the final debate last week, Southerland tiptoed around the issue of religion. Instead he focused on other reasons to make the Bible the state book. Southerland noted that Nashville's been a center for Bible publishing. And for generations, he said, Tennessee families have recorded births and deaths in their family Bibles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUTHERLAND: What we're doing here is recognizing it for its historical and cultural contribution to the state of Tennessee.

WATKINS: It just seems like a fearful effort.

SISK: That's Bill Watkins, pastor of the Crieve Hall Church of Christ.

WATKINS: In my opinion, a fearful effort to stop the incursion of things that we don't always agree with. And I don't think we have to be afraid of anything.

SISK: And Watkins believes it's not needed. Once the measure reaches the governor's desk, he has ten days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or let it go into effect without his signature. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.