Tennessee would name a Christian Heritage Month under bill sent to governor

Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, looks on in a House committee meeting during a special session of the state legislature on Aug. 23 in Nashville. Grills sponsored a bill that has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee for approval that would designate November as Christian Heritage Month in Tennessee. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, looks on in a House committee meeting during a special session of the state legislature on Aug. 23 in Nashville. Grills sponsored a bill that has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee for approval that would designate November as Christian Heritage Month in Tennessee. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

November would be designated Christian Heritage Month in Tennessee under a bill the General Assembly sent to Gov. Bill Lee for approval Thursday in the latest effort by Republican lawmakers to imbue state government with more Christian themes and symbols.

Just days after sending a list of proposed official state books to the governor that included the Bible — and two days after former President Donald Trump promoted sales of a $60 edition of the holy text paired with founding U.S. documents — Tennessee senators, with a 26-2 vote, approved legislation intended to encourage the state’s citizens to learn more about Christian heritage in November.

"Folks, our Christian heritage is critical to this nation," said Paul Rose, R-Covington, a sponsor, while presenting the bill to his colleagues Thursday. "And if we desire to exist, in my opinion, for another 10, 20, 30, maybe 100 years, we need to go back to the roots of our founding."

Rose cited the clause of the U.S. Constitution establishing the separation of church and state but said it really meant the state shouldn't be in the church — not vice versa.

Opponents disagreed, questioning the constitutionality of the bill and arguing it would alienate many Tennesseans.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, described her Christian background, recounting competing in Bible drill as a student, racing to find verses faster than her counterparts.

"I also serve as an elected official," she said, "and I understand the importance of separation of church and state."

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She warned the bill could be a slippery slope, because while the majority of the state's residents are Christian, many are not, and just as Christians would not like it if a different religion was imposed on them by government, Christians should not impose their faith on others.

A debate over the Christian history of the nation ensued, with lawmakers opining on whether or not the U.S. founders were Christian and how that factored into their vision for the nation, before the overwhelming vote in favor of the bill.

Christianity indeed runs deep in Tennessee, where eight in 10 adult Tennesseans identify as Christian — one of the nation's highest rates — according polling from the Pew Research Center. The remainder are mostly atheists, agnostics or people who identify with no religious group. Tennessee is also home to tens of thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Jews, among others.

A little under half of U.S. adults told Pew that the Bible should have influence on U.S. laws.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents said the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people when the two conflict. Self-identified Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to take this view, Pew found.

Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said on March 14 he introduced the legislation after someone called into a radio show requesting November be named Christian Heritage Appreciation month.

"That's the reason I brought this bill," he said, explaining his desire to encourage Tennesseans to honor and recognize the effect Christians and their faith have brought to the nation and state and homes.

Opposing the bill then, state Rep. Aftyn Behn, D-Nashville, described her fight on behalf of Jewish constituents she met with after the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. She said the constituents were concerned about the threat of white Christian nationalism and white supremacy in Tennessee, and she worked with them for weeks to create a resolution that would urge the state to honor a multi-faith and multi-religious calendar.

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Grills' bill proposing Christian Heritage Month rushed through a legislative committee with no debate, she said. In contrast, she said, she couldn't event get a first or second motion to move her resolution forward.

"And I just wanted to highlight that — that in this body we represent a diverse group of constituents and communities across the state that deserve not to feel alienated or isolated because of one religious ideology," she said.

Behn said she plans to bring her resolution forward next year and wants to encourage the state to represent all religions.

Wide ranging debate in the state Senate on Thursday echoed previous House discussion, with lawmakers expressing a variety of views on the meaning of "heritage," what it means for a state to endorse Christianity and the concern by some that speaking about Christian heritage had become a political taboo even as there are recognized months for all sorts of other things, from disability rights to Jewish American heritage to LGBTQ+ history.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he does not oppose celebrating heritage, but he noted the ranging spiritual beliefs of the U.S. Founding Fathers and their efforts to ensure space for non-Christians in the nation's history. He said he opposed the bill because it seems like an assertion that is trying to rewrite history.

State Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, said it is indeed a bad idea to make Christianity a state religion, citing the emperor Constantine's order making Christianity the religion of Rome as just one catastrophic example.

"But I will recognize the history that Christianity has upon this nation, from our Founding Fathers all the way through to today," he said, explaining his support for the bill.

State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, supported the bill, too, arguing that inalienable rights conferred by God are the bedrock of the U.S.

"We are a constitutional democracy based on the rule of law," she said. "And our laws are based on the rule of God."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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