A Tale Of Two Bills: Tenn. Lawmakers Move To Make Bible The Official State Book While Idaho Governor Vetoes Bible-In-Schools Measure

We don’t know what Haslam plans to do, though he has expressed concerns about the measure. We hope he’ll follow Otter’s lead and veto this troubling legislation. If he doesn’t, it might be the best of times in Idaho and the worst of times in Tennessee as far as church-state separation is concerned.

Reckless bills involving the Bible have surfaced in two states – one is dead, but the other remains in play.

In Idaho, lawmakers pushed SB 1342, which would have authorized public schools to use the Bible and other religious books in the curriculum.

The text of the measure sounded harmless enough. It said, in part, “The Bible is expressly permitted to be used in Idaho public schools for reference purposes to further the study” of various subjects, such as history, literature and religion. It would not have required students to study the religious text.

So what was the problem? As Americans United's Legislative Department pointed out in a letter to Idaho lawmakers, the measure was unnecessary because schools already have the right to incorporate the Bible in lesson plans – provided they’re not using it to proselytize.

But there were other issues. As AU noted, SB 1342 could “provide cover for those who wish to sneak religious instruction into public school classrooms.” Additionally, the legislation was problematic because it constituted government endorsement of religion – a clear violation of the Idaho Constitution and the First Amendment.

Fortunately, Gov. Butch Otter agreed with us. This week, he vetoed the bill. He also gave a good explanation for his action.

“I have deep respect and appreciation for the Bible as religious doctrine as well as a piece of historic literature….However, allowing S1342 to become law is a direct contravention to the Idaho Constitution and it could result for the loss of funding and costly litigation for Idaho public schools,” Otter wrote in a note accompanying the veto.   

But in Tennessee, a bad bill is still in play that would take the audacious step of making the Bible the official state book. The General Assembly already passed the bill and has sent it to Gov. Bill Haslam. Yesterday, Americans United urged the governor to veto the measure because it is divisive and violates both the state and federal constitutions.

Just like the Idaho measure, this one is problematic, in part, because it would represent a clear government endorsement of religion.

“The most cardinal of [church-state separation] sins is for the government to promote one religion over others,” AU Senior Litigation Counsel Greg Lipper told Slate.

We don’t know what Haslam plans to do, though he has expressed concerns about the measure. We hope he’ll follow Otter’s lead and veto this troubling legislation. If he doesn’t, it might be the best of times in Idaho and the worst of times in Tennessee as far as church-state separation is concerned.