NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's rollicking House debate over making the "Holy Bible" state government's official book is expected to resume today after Tuesday's fierce fight in which one member fretted about the U.S. sliding toward a "theocracy" and the sponsor raised questions whether the country will remain a "Christian nation."
The controversial bill, sponsored by freshman Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, a former Baptist minister, has managed to cleave through normal partisan divides and split both Republicans and Democrats.
Republican Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery says in a legal opinion that the bill violates both the Tennessee and U.S. constitutions. And Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, all Republicans, are opposed.
Meanwhile, some Republican religious conservatives are divided and two Democratic members who are ministers support it.
Sexton has repeatedly said his purpose is not religious but to acknowledge the Bible as an important part of Tennessee's history, culture and a recognized part of its economy with major religious publishers in Nashville.
Before Tuesday's hour-plus debate was cut off by a pre-set time to adjourn for the day, all views were on full display in the 99-member chamber.
Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, told colleagues, "I'm a Christian and I believe in Jesus." But he said he is secure enough in his beliefs to have the courage to oppose the bill.
His constituents, Jernigan said, "are not all Christians but they all are Tennesseans and they pay taxes. That's what I want to stand up for today. I think we are violating the Tennessee Constitution and U.S. Constitution."
Moreover, Jernigan warned, "we're going to get sued and we're going to lose if we pass this. If this were a resolution, I'd be with [you]. But when we codify it into law it takes us a step further from a democracy to a theocracy."
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Those remarks and others about Americans being more religious than nations with established churches like England, prompted Sexton, a businessman who spent 25 years in the pulpit, to retort, "I challenge anyone to show me where this bill establishes a religion."
Calling it a "last-ditch effort" to do away with a book "that's been in our culture forever," Sexton went on to reference recent remarks made by British Prime Minister David Cameron in connection with Easter.
"David Cameron declared that Great Britain was a Christian nation," Sexton said. "I wonder if Americans are bold enough to stand up and say that, where our counterpart, the country that we came from, realizing that some of their views were wrong. They said we do welcome Muslims. We welcome people of other faith, but we are a Christian national and the work that the church does is good."
His bill doesn't establish any religion, Sexton said, "and any move to denounce it, I think, is to silence those of us who would like to see reverence given to a book that has played a role in all of our lives."
Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, who is black and looked up in surprise when Sexton stated England "was the country we came from," took the floor and stated, "I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. America is comprised of Americans of all religious faiths."
While she considers the Bible as "my guide," Turner said, "it is not fair to the citizens of the great state of Tennessee whose faith is not mine, those who are Jewish, those who are Muslim."
Turner added, "our lives and the way we carry ourselves should be the book."
Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, told colleagues, "we are not creating a theocracy, we are not creating an official state religion or a state church with this bill. If you don't think the Bible is the state book, what is worthy enough to be the official book of Tennessee?"
Senate Speaker Ramsey last week told reporters that the Bible is "my official book." But putting it in Tennessee's Blue Book to be listed with other official state symbols as well as the state amphibian (a salamander), various songs and the state tree (tulip poplar) "belittles the most holy book ever written."
Speaker Harwell told reporters Tuesday the bill is "unconstitutional and I believe it really diminishes what I believe are the Holy Scriptures. I believe the sponsor of the bill is very sincere in what he's attempting to do. It's just not something I would personally support."
The governor, who once thought of becoming a minister, said in an interview with The Associated Press that "it would be my hope they vote against it. My faith is the most important thing in my life to me. But I also know from history that any time the state has gotten tied in with the church, it hasn't gone well with the church."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.