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Critics Oppose Making Holy Bible Tennessee's Official Book

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The state of Tennessee has a long list of official symbols.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

They include the Tennessee Walking Horse.

INSKEEP: The Tennessee cave salamander.

GREENE: The Tennessee coneflower.

INSKEEP: And now lawmakers want to add one more, a state book. As Chas Sisk of member station WPLN reports, it's drawing a lot of attention because the book is the Bible.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Opposition to the proposal has been fierce, including from some religious conservatives. Republican state Representative Jerry Sexton, a former pastor from the small town of Bean Station, says he doesn't understand why. The Bible is found in countless homes across the state.

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REPRESENTATIVE JERRY SEXTON: I think it gives the average Tennessean the pride that they have as Tennesseans. We know who we are, and we have a lot of rural areas in Tennessee, and we adhere to our Bible.

SISK: Backers of the proposal generally downplay its religious significance. They note many states refer to God in their official mottos and that the words of the Bible appear on countless government buildings. Supporters include Republican Representative Sabi Kumar, an immigrant from India. He says embracing the Bible is part of integrating into Tennessee.

REPRESENTATIVE SABI KUMAR: Yes, follow your heart and follow your religion, but honor the culture, the heritage and the values of our society.

SISK: The idea isn't entirely without precedent. The National Conference of State Legislatures says Louisiana and Mississippi have entertained proposals to add the Bible to their official symbols. But both plans were withdrawn before being put to a vote. The move in Tennessee worries Hedy Weinberg, state leader of the American Civil Liberties Union.

HEDY WEINBERG: Tennessee is a diverse, wonderful community of Christians, Jews, Muslims, people who celebrate other religions as well. And in fact, in 2015, to believe that we are just in this state of one religion is wrong.

SISK: Opponents include the state's Republican attorney general, who says the proposal violates the Tennessee Constitution as well as the U.S. Constitution. Others raise theological objections. Republican Mark Norris, the state Senate majority leader, says making the Bible Tennessee's state book would diminish its religious importance, dragging it down to the level of the Tennessee cave salamander.

SENATOR MARK NORRIS: If you really care about Holy Scripture, you don't want to reduce it to some kind of a secular symbol just to pander to the masses wherever they are.

SISK: The measure has passed the Tennessee House and is to be debated in the Senate today. Republican Governor Bill Haslam opposes the bill, but hasn't said what he'll do if it reaches his desk. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.