Attorney general says Bible can't be official Tennessee book

Herbert Slatery speaks about his appointment as attorney general in the Tennessee Supreme Court chamber in Nashville on Sept. 15.

NASHVILLE -- A bill seeking to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee would violate separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a legal opinion Monday.

The opinion was issued to lawmakers a day before the full House was scheduled to vote on the measure sponsored by freshman Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton of Bean Station.

"The Bible is undeniably a sacred text of the Christian faith," Slatery wrote in the opinion obtained by The Associated Press. "Legislative designation of The Holy Bible as the official book ... must presumptively be understood as an endorsement of religion."

Slatery cites the provision in the Tennessee Constitution that states that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religion establishment or mode of worship." That requirement is "substantially stronger" than even the U.S. Constitution's clause preventing Congress from establishing a religion, he said.

Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown and a lead sponsor of the measure, said he plans to move forward despite the legal opinion: "That's his opinion. I've got a different one."

Although Slatery's legal opinion can't prevent lawmakers from passing legislation, it means that the attorney general's office would have to recuse itself from any litigation stemming from the law.

photo Herbert Slatery

The legislation would place the Bible alongside other official state symbols, such as the tomato as the state fruit, the tulip poplar as the state tree, the Tennessee cave salamander as the state amphibian and the square dance as the state folk dance.

The state also has several state songs such as "Tennessee Waltz" and "Rocky Top." All are listed in the Tennessee Blue Book, considered the definitive almanac of Tennessee state government.

Slatery said those state symbols "inherently carry the imprimatur and endorsement of the government."

Slatery was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's former chief legal adviser before the Supreme Court appointed him attorney general last year.

The governor also has strong reservations about the bill, spokesman David Smith said.

"The governor doesn't think it's very respectful of what the Bible is," Smith said.

Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville said he hopes the attorney general's opinion will persuade colleagues to vote against the measure.

"They were dumbing down the Bible, trying to make it look like a history book to keep it secular, rather than sacred," Norris said. "It's a dumb bill and it needs to die."

But supporters like David Fowler, the president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said last week there's nothing belittling about the proposal. If anything, it highlights that "there is no book that has played the role in the history of Tennessee equal to that of the Bible."

"This book has had more practical use, more historical use, and more economic impact in our state than any other book," he said.

Similar proposals to make the Bible the state book failed in Mississippi earlier this year and in Louisiana last year.