NASHVILLE — Casting aside questions about its constitutionality, state senators on Monday gave final approval to a bill designating the Holy Bible as Tennessee government's official book.
Senators voted 19-8 to send the bill, which passed the House last year, to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who recently expressed reservations, yet again, about the measure.
The vote came after a lengthy and sometimes passionate debate.
Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, an ordained minister, defended the bill, which states the Bible is being recognized for its "great historical and cultural significance in the State of Tennessee as a record of the history of Tennessee families that predates some modern vital statistical records."
"We're recognizing it the only way that we can in the state of Tennessee," said Southerland, who went on to cite an unnamed group that would provide legal representation to the state if it is challenged in court, as many expect.
Opponents said the bill demeans a book they themselves consider holy, putting it in Tennessee's official Blue Book alongside other recognized items, including the cave salamander as Tennessee's official amphibian, the smallmouth bass as the state's official sportsfish, and a murder ballad as an official state song.
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, said the Bible was intended to be recognized by an individual and "not as a nation, not as a state." Rather, it is a "guide for believers" with instructions in faith and the "acceptance of Jesus Christ," Haile argued.
Pointing to the Roman Emperor Constantine's actions in the 4th century, Haile said government involvement "demeans" the Bible.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga last week voted to let the bill out of committee but said he was reserving a final decision until it came to the Senate floor.
The senator said he sent a text seeking further counsel from people he respects and "whose wisdom is far greater" than his own. Gardenhire said he was "really struggling. I don't want to be in a position to deny Christ or God."
"My sense is that naming the Bible the state book would actually do more to trivialize the Bible than to honor it by putting it in the same category as the state flower, bird, tree or rock, etc.," Gardenhire said, citing the response he got from one unnamed person. "I would argue the Bible is in a class of its own. It's tough. I'll pray for wisdom for you."
Gardenhire voted no.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, noted Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery last year issued a legal opinion on the bill saying it is violates not only the U.S. Constitution but the Tennessee Constitution, which has even stronger prohibitions on mixing government with religion.
Yarbro noted the state Constitution says "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."
In an apparent reference to bill sponsor Southerland, Yarbro pointed out Tennessee's Constitution bans ordained ministers of the gospel from serving in the General Assembly, noting the prohibition was overturned by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court in a Chattanooga case.
Voting for the bill were Sens. Bo Watson, R-Hixson; Mike Bell, R-Riceville; and Ken Yager, R-Kingston.
The governor's press office did not respond to a request for comment about the bill's passage.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow on twitter at AndySher1.
This story was updated April 4 at 11:30 p.m. with more information.