Legislation that would have made the Bible the official state book of Mississippi was nothing but another case of “politicians pandering to Christians at the expense of everyone who is a non-Christian,” Sam Grover, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., told PJM.
The sponsor of the proposal that Grover decided was a classic case of pandering, Rep. Tom Miles (D), said Mississippi House Bill 840, which died in committee Feb. 23, was intended to “designate the Holy Bible as the official state book of Mississippi; and for related purposes,” and nothing else.
Miles said forcing the Christian religion on anyone in Mississippi was the furthest thing from his mind.
“What we are doing is making a statement that our state, and our state government, would do well to emulate the broad principles that are found in the Bible, including taking care of the poor and the needy among us,” Miles said.
“It’s not a bad standard to strive for, and its message has stood the test of time for several thousand years,” he added.
Fellow Democrat Rep. Michael Evans, who co-sponsored the legislation, told AL.com the idea of making the Bible the official state book of Mississippi came from conversations with people in his district.
“Me and my constituents, we were talking about it and one of them made a comment that people ought to start reading the Bible,” Evans said.
Zakiya Summers, the communications director of the Mississippi ACLU, told PJM good intentions and Mississippi aside, House Bill 840 would have violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“It fails to recognize the diversity of Mississippi citizens,” Summers said. “Lawmakers should not be promoting policies that divide Mississippians along religious lines.”
Grover agreed and said it was the implied intent of the legislation more than the wording of the proposal that was the problem.
“A bill like this is the government trying to take a stand on what religion is preferred. It is trying to say the Bible is better than the Koran, better than other Scriptures that other minority religions might read, or better than what non-religious people might read,” Grover said.
“The point is the government would be endorsing one religion over all others,” he added.
This was not the first time these two Mississippi Democrats have tried to make the Bible the official book of their state. Evans and Miles proposed similar legislation in 2015 that also died in committee. And their idea was not unique. Legislators in Louisiana and Tennessee have also proposed making the Bible the official book of their states. Those proposals also died for lack of support.
Rep. Thomas Carmody (R-La.) told the Times-Picayune he was not trying to set up a state religion by introducing the idea of making the Holy Bible the official book of Louisiana. He just wanted to educate people.
Carmody wound up pulling the legislation from consideration before it could to go a full vote of the House because he said it had become a distraction.
Tennessee Sen. Steve Southerland said fellow Tennesseans Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley mentioned the Bible in their songs when he proposed making the Good Book the official book of the Volunteer State.
Southerland’s proposal went further than the others. It was approved by the Tennessee House but was rejected by the Senate in April 2015.
“All I know is that I hear Satan snickering,” the L.A. Times reported Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said. “He loves this kind of mischief. You just dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you’re on your way to where he wants you.”
Miles did not return PJM requests for comment on whether he and Evans would try again to make the Bible the official book of Mississippi.
But whether they do or not, Grover, who monitors state legislation for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said legislation like this is part of an unhealthy trend.
As an example of that trend, Grover pointed to the Student Religious Liberties Act in Georgia that would encourage students to declare their religious beliefs to their fellow students and allow prayer back into public schools.
“They are doing that at the expense of the huge segment of the population that is nonreligious or practices a minority religion,” said Grover.
The sponsor of HB 816, Georgia Rep. Billy Mitchell, failed to return PJM requests for comment.
Zakiya Summers said as far as the ACLU was concerned, the issue was very clear cut.
“The government should not be in the religion business and should not be deciding which beliefs are true and which religious beliefs are false,” she said. “That is a matter for religions themselves.”
Sabrina McKenzie, a spokeswoman for the Legislative Clergy Council, told WSB-TV when the Student Religious Liberties Act was introduced there is a more important issue that should be considered.
She said life has only gotten worse in America since the Supreme Court ruled against public school prayer in 1962.