Sunday, April 10, 2016

Historically Significant or Religious Endorsement?

This past week, Tennessee passed a Bill making their state book The Holy Bible. Supporters of this Bill argue that the Bible holds deep significance in Tennessee’s state history, and making the Bible their state book is an attempt to honor that history.  Supporters of the Bill reject the idea that this is a government endorsement of a religion, stating that the historical significance of the Bible should hold more meaning than its religious connotation. Opponents of the Bill, however, see this bill as a clear violation of the Free Exercise Clause. Further, arguing that by making a book as sacred as The Bible so trivialized; putting it alongside things like ‘state exercise’ or ‘state sport’ detracts considerably from the holy beliefs deeply held by those who believe in its teachings.

In a 19-8 decision the bill passed the State Senate and is now going to Republican Senator Hassan to be signed. It’s unclear whether the Senator will sign or veto the bill due to concerns about whether it goes against the Establishment Clause. In a statement he released he said; “The Bible is the most important book in my life, and I think in the world, but that's very different than being the state's official book.”

The opposition surrounding this is very vocal; Tennessee’s Attorney General cited the First Amendment in the statement he released earlier this week; “The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and Article I, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution, which provides ‘that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship’”.

In the past, when The Supreme Court has grappled with the question of whether the religious significance or secular interest reins supreme, there have been multiple factors that decide this. In the cases we’ve examined in class the defense of history and context has appeared imperative for the Supreme Court in their decision. In Van Orden v. Perry, the court ruled although a monument that has its roots in religion, the secular interest of historical significance was important enough to have the monument kept.  Further in Chambers v. Marsh and The Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court ruled that a state instructed prayer was constitutional. They ruled this on the basis of historic past that legislative prayer, and the tradition it holds in the legislature. Additionally, Justice Kennedy argued that legislative prayer is only meant for the legislature.

This all being said, I believe this example, although similar to the cases above, differs in some very key ways.  In Van Orden v. Perry, the concurring argument stated as one of its main reasons the monument was not coercion was because passers-by didn’t have to stare at it and could choose different walking paths to avoid it. Further the fact that the monument was in a park with multiple monuments informing the states history was also important in the decision of this case. Conversely, in this case, there is nothing else around a state book to inform its historical significance. In Chambers v. Marsh and The Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court decided in their concurring argument that legislated prayer is not intended for everyday people, further, there is not the tradition of having a religious text assigned as a state's official book. This Bill, however, is overreaching to all citizens, not just the legislature, and coerces as well as endorses religion by doing so.

In my opinion, Tennessee’s bill to change the state’s official book to The Bible is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Although there have been court cases that justify the secular use of religious symbols to inform history or tradition, this goes beyond the conditions set forth by the Supreme Court, because it is an unavoidable and blatantly endorsing a religion, as well as elevating one religion above non-religion and other religions.

What do you think, in this case, do you think that the historical significance trumps the religious connotations; or is this a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause?


Hannah L. said...

I agree with Lucy in that this is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause. Although the stated purpose for making The Holy Bible the state book of Tennessee is because of its importance in history, I think that the religious nature of the book trumps the historical implications in this case. The Bible is a religious text in nature, and even if it has been used in the history of the state, I don't believe that in this case the religious aspect can be separated. The government is clearly endorsing a religious text and violates even the Tennessee state constitution. I also agree with the point that by making the Bible the state book, it is reducing the importance and meaning of the text to something trivial, like a state tree.

Natalie K. said...

I agree with your position on this issue as well as the comment made above. I think that the bill that would change Tennessee's official book to the Bible is an unconstitutional establishment of religion by the government. I do not think that the real purpose of making the Bible the state book is to simply honor Tennessee's history, but rather it is to endorse Christianity by raising the Bible to a status way above all other books that are recognized as being holy. In this case, not only is the state favoring religion over non-religion by making an inherently religious text the state's official book, it is also favoring one particular religious sect over al others. In no way does this government action show any form of neutrality, making it clearly unconstitutional.

Caroline S. said...

I would have to agree with all of the comments made insofar. I do not believe that there is any secular purpose to making the Bible the state book. History will always protect the majority and this is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. No other religious text would have the "religious" grounds that the Bible supposedly holds in the United States history. The Establishment Clause was created to prevent a national religion and this mentality was later on adopted by the States. By stating that the Bible is the state book of Tennessee, the State is clearly establishing that Christianity is the State's religion. I do not think history is a strong enough argument to prove that this book has any secular purpose.

Kiriko Masek said...

I agree with Lucy and believe that this bill would be a violation of the Establishment clause. Although the state of Tennessee claims that the Holy Bible has been an important factor throughout the state's history, I do not believe that this is enough reason to have a highly religiously affiliated text be the state's official book. I agree with Natalie's point that by labeling the Bible as Tennessee's state book, they are indirectly (or maybe their intentions were more direct than indirect) endorsing Christianity as a religion and prioritizing Christianity and the Holy Bible over all other religions.

Thomas M. said...

I agree with the other commenters that using the Holy Bible as a state book is an unconstitutional practice that goes against the establishment clause. I would not be offended, however, if the state I lived in passed such a bill because I do not view what a state's book is as being terribly important. If I were a legislator, I would vote against it because it does not serve a secular purpose and is an endorsement of religion, but as a private citizen, I would not be angry if the Bible were allowed to be the state book because I do not see any actual harm being done. I could not name the state book of any other state and designating any book as a "state" book is unnecessary.