The culture wars took an expected turn this month when two Republican governors vetoed “Bible bills” in the reliably red states of Idaho and Tennessee.
The Idaho legislation would have permitted the Bible to be used “for reference purposes” in teaching literature, history, government and other subjects in public schools. To placate critics, amendments had deleted any mention of geology, astronomy and biology, and added “other religious texts.”
In his veto message, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter wrote that although he has “deep respect and appreciation for the Bible as religious doctrine,” allowing the bill to become law would violate the Idaho Constitution’s prohibition on teaching “religious tenets or doctrines” in public schools.
A week later in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed legislation that would have made the Bible the state’s official book. “In addition to the constitutional issues with the bill,” said Haslam, “my personal feeling is that this bill trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text.”
During the heated debate leading up to Haslam’s veto, proponents argued that the measure was not an endorsement of religion, but merely official recognition of the “great historical and cultural significance” of the Bible in Tennessee. Opponents countered that making the Bible the state book promotes one religion over others in violation of both the state and federal constitutions.
Both Bible bills suffered from vague, overly broad language that would have undoubtedly led to years of controversy and litigation.
What did the Idaho legislature mean by use of the Bible for “reference purposes” in public school classrooms? Could teachers invoke biblical authority when teaching history, literature and other subjects? If so, that would be unconstitutional.
Or did the legislature mean that teachers may refer to the Bible in some objective way when teaching? If so, the bill would be unnecessary because current law already permits academic teaching about the Bible, where appropriate, in the public school curriculum.
If the Idaho constitution is currently construed by educators to prohibit objective teaching about the Bible, then the legislature could clear that up by making the distinction between unconstitutional “teaching religious tenets” and constitutional “teaching about religion.” The bill Gov. Otter vetoed failed to make that distinction – and thus would have only made matters worse.
The Tennessee bill was equally murky. Did the legislature intend to designate sacred scripture as the official state book, which would be unconstitutional? Or did the lawmakers merely want to acknowledge the historical and economic impact of the Bible, which ignores the religious meaning and significance of the scriptures?
During legislative debates in both states, proponents appeared to want to have it both ways: Elevate the Bible because it is the word of God, but do so with ambiguous, secular language designed to pass constitutional muster.
Otter and Haslam, both religious men, wisely rejected these roundabout attempts to use the engine of government to privilege the Christian faith. Ironically, by protecting the autonomy of religion, their vetoes did more to preserve the authenticity of the Bible than legislation could ever accomplish.
For many Christians and Jews, when the Bible is co-opted by the state, it ceases to be the prophetic word of God. An “official Bible” can no longer speak truth to power; it becomes instead an echo of the powers that be.
Preventing the entanglement of religion and government – the source of much repression and violence throughout history – is, of course, the genius of the First Amendment. The vitality of religious life in America is living proof that religion flourishes best in a society where every person is free to choose in matters of faith without government involvement or coercion.
Kudos, then, to two conservative, Republican governors who had the courage to stand up for religious freedom, despite the political price. Their vetoes of misbegotten “Bible bills” are good news for the First Amendment – and good news for the Good Book.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center.
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