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Tennessee Governor Vetoes Bill to Make Bible State Book

Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, said the bill "trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text."
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Shontae Scott of Atlanta clutches her hands on her bible Tuesday while watching live coverage of the funeral of Coretta Scott King at the Samson's Health and Fitness Center next to the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church February 7, 2006 in Lithonia, Georgia.Stephen Morton / Getty Images file

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday vetoed a bill seeking to make Tennessee the first state to designate the Bible as its official book.

Haslam, who considered entering a seminary before deciding to join the family truck stop business after college, said in his veto message that the bill "trivializes the Bible, which I believe is a sacred text."

The bill had narrowly passed both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly after sponsors said it aimed at honoring the significance of the Bible in the state's history and economy, as opposed to a government endorsement of religion.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam talks with reporters in Nashville, Tenn. Haslam vetoed a bill that would make the Bible the official book of Tennessee on Thursday, April 14.Mark Humphrey / AP file

"If we believe that the Bible is the word of God, then we shouldn't be recognizing it only as a book of historical and economic significance," Haslam said.

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Lawmakers passed the bill despite the state attorney general's warning that it would violate both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions, the latter of which states that "No preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

The Bible bill came to a vote in the state Senate just days before the candidate filing deadline, giving lawmakers pause about being portrayed by political rivals as being as opposed to the Bible if they voted against the bill.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, an ordained minister, and Rep. Jerry Sexton, a retired Baptist pastor. Both are Republicans from eastern Tennessee. Both are vowing to mount bids to override Haslam's veto next week.

It only takes a majority in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly to override the veto. Haslam has previously vetoed three bills since taking office in 2011, and none has been turned back by lawmakers.

After a marathon debate last year, the bill received 55 votes in the House, or five more votes than the minimum needed to pass. In the Senate earlier this month, the bill received 19 votes, two more than the minimum.

Haslam said elected officials' "deepest beliefs" should inform their decisions.

"Men and women motivated by faith have every right and obligation to bring their belief and commitment to the public debate," he said. "However, that is very different from the governmental establishment of religion that our founders warned against and our constitution prohibits."

Earlier in the session, the Legislature approved a resolution to add the .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle to the state's official symbols like the Tennessee cave salamander, the eastern box turtle and the channel catfish — plus nine state songs, including the moonshine-themed "Rocky Top."