Tennessee is poised to make the Bible its official state book

Tennessee senators debate the bill.
Tennessee senators debate the bill.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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The raccoon and the mockingbird may soon have a new friend in Tennessee state history: the Bible.

The US state is proposing to make the Bible its official book, alongside other symbols like Tennessee’s official fruit (tomato), cultivated flower (iris), bird (mockingbird) and wild animal (raccoon).

A bill that proposes to make the Bible the official state book passed through the state House in April last year and in the Senate this week (April 4), with 19 in favor, eight against, and three not voting. The bill must be signed by Republican governor Bill Haslam to become law.

Versions of the bill illuminate the rationale behind the proposal. In one instance, the lawmakers suggest that the Bible has historically served as an important artifact for many Tennessee families, containing detailed records of birthdays, marriages, and death dates. One amendment reads:

“WHEREAS, because these Bibles contain a history of Tennessee families that may not be found otherwise, the Tennessee State Library and Archives holds hundreds of family Bible records in several formats and within many collections.”

In addition, the amendment points to the Bible’s importance as a “multimillion dollar industry,” citing Bible publishers headquartered in the state capital, Nashville. The lawmakers add, somewhat facetiously: ”WHEREAS, even the Los Angeles Times has acknowledged the economic impact of the Bible in Tennessee.”

In the last two years other states have attempted to make the Bible their state book. Mississippi’s proposal died in committee, and in Louisiana, the bill was withdrawn.

If the law passes in Tennessee, some, like the state’s attorney, say it would be a violation of the US First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

But it’s not clear what it means for a state to have an official book. Tennessee isn’t mandating, for instance, that the Bible become required reading in schools. State symbols are often just that—symbolic—and official books are uncommon. (Massachusetts does have an official children’s book, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.) A good number of states have officially designated beverages—New York’s is milk—and even dinosaurs.