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NASHVILLE -- Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey opposes a fast-moving bill making the "Holy Bible" the official book of Tennessee, saying it "belittles the most holy book ever written."

Ramsey told reporters on Tuesday that he had concerns about the measure passed earlier in the day by the Senate State and Local Government Committee with seven members voting aye and two abstaining.

The bill says: "The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book."

"It shouldn't be," Ramsey said. "I'm just adamantly opposed to that. The Bible is my official book. It is. It shouldn't be put in the Blue Book with 'Rocky Top,' cave salamanders and the tulip poplar" tree.

The Blue Book is the official state book. Through various past actions, lawmakers have designated "Rocky Top," a bluegrass murder ballad about moonshining, as one of the state's official songs, and the Tennessee Cave Salamander the state's official amphibian. The tulip popular is the state tree.

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In this photo taken Feb. 3, 2015, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, speaks at a forum in Nashville.
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The legislation now goes to the Senate floor for debate. Also on Tuesday, the bill cleared the House State Government Subcommittee and now goes to full committee.

Lawmakers have requested a formal legal opinion from state Attorney General Herbert Slatery on its constitutionality. Similar legislation failed in Mississippi this year and in Louisiana last year.

Tennessee's bill is sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, a freshman lawmaker who had been an ordained minister for 25 years before going into business. Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, who became an ordained minister in 1981, is the Senate sponsor.

Both said when presenting the bill Tuesday that their focus is not on religion but on the historic role the Bible has played in Tennessee history in terms of inspiration and the economy. Nashville is home to several religious publishers that have printed millions of Bibles.

"It is not my intent to bring adherence in religious principles," Southerland told colleagues. Rather, his purpose is to "memorialize the role of the Bible in Tennessee history."

But ministers and a rabbi in the Senate committee questioned which Bible the sponsors want to make the official state book, noting that depends on whether one is Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. And making it all about the Bible's historical significance in Tennessee detracts from its significance as a spiritual document, they argued.

"I love catfish, but listen, it doesn't come close to the Holy Scripture," said Michael Williams, senior pastor at Nashville's West End Methodist Church. The catfish is an official state fish.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, also opposed the bill. An attorney, Norris said under prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings, any mention in the Blue Book "must have a predominately secular effect" to meet legal muster.

"Secular is the opposite of sacred. And the holy gospel is sacred," Norris said. "What we're being asked to do here today is reduce the holy gospel."

Atheists "will love this bill," Norris warned, saying it backs their contention the Bible is nothing but a collection of "myths."

He described the voting situation as a "dilemma" and abstained.

David Fowler of the Family Action Council of Tennessee testified in favor of the bill, saying while the Bible "doesn't need your blessing" he sees nothing wrong "to recognize the historical and economic impact" of it.

He said the Blue Book contains many references to God and includes the lady bug. The ladybug "is actually a very Catholic thing," Fowler said, calling it "the lady of the bug."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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