Tuesday, April 19, 2016

[457] How government, religion and the First Amendment intersect in Tennessee’s Bible debate

Q&A with expert and MTSU media dean Ken Paulson

MURFREESBORO — Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to make the Bible its official state book if Gov. Bill Haslam signs legislation recently passed by the General Assembly. Haslam has raised questions, as has Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, about the constitutionality of such a law.

A Q&A with First Amendment expert Ken Paulson, developed as part of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University, offers perspective on the First Amendment issues involved.

What are the constitutional questions surrounding this legislation?

In guaranteeing all Americans freedom of religion, the First Amendment of the Constitution also specifies that government may not pass laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

The Supreme Court in 1947 interpreted that to mean that government may not pass laws — in former Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s words — “that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” Designating the holy book of one faith would almost certainly constitute favoring one religion over another.

The sponsors of the Tennessee bill say this is not about promoting religion, but rather about recognizing the historical and culture significance of the Bible to Tennessee. If their purpose is not to endorse a religion, could that still be considered a violation of First Amendment rights?

First of all, I think it’s fair to be skeptical of the claim that this has nothing to do with religion. It is the most holy book for a majority of Americans. And I’m confident that most people see it as a book that reflects their faith rather than a global history. But even if we give these legislators the benefit of the doubt and conclude that they are not attempting to promote religion, their motive is not dispositive. The key question is whether this government action favors one religion over others. And it’s hard to see it doing anything but that.

But religion is not invisible in government. What about governing bodies who hold prayers before meetings, and our national motto, “In God We Trust”?

Courts have upheld ceremonial expressions of religion by public officials in public places. This is largely a recognition of tradition, and judges tend to see it more as a matter of habit than of worship.

That said, the biggest reason this is a little muddy is because in 1956, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution making “In God We Trust” our national motto. This was done at the height of the Red Scare. And our government was determined to embrace God on every level to separate themselves from the “godless commies.” It’s in that same environment that they also chose to rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance to say “In God We Trust.” Everything surrounding the adoption of “In God We Trust” in that era indicates they did it for purely religious reasons. They were candid about it in those days.

Once it became our national motto, courts were able to conclude that it was a governmental phrase and not a religious one. It allowed courts over the years to sidestep the issue, and allowed governments to put “In God We Trust” on any wall they wished. Because as odd as it sounds, courts now regard the national motto as not being religious in nature.

Liberty Counsel, a socially conservative legal group, has said recent court rulings upholding Good Friday as a government and school holiday may give some legal grounding for defense of a law that made the Bible Tennessee’s official state book. How would court rulings like these square with the First Amendment?

When reviewing whether something violates the establishment clause, a court will look at a number of factors including whether the legislation has a secular purpose. It makes sense in some situations to schedule a school day off when a significant percentage of your students are already going to be out of school because of a religious holiday. The secular purpose would be to maximize enrollment in the classroom and minimize the number of days students would miss. That might be defensible. But on the other hand, if it’s a calculated effort to only allow days off when a particular faith is celebrating that would raise serious constitutional questions.

What factors does a court use to determine if something is a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause?

In 1980, the Supreme Court developed a test that has three parts. To uphold a law with a religious impact, it must have a secular purpose, its principal impact “must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and the law must not entangle government with religion.

In this case, the adoption of the Bible as an official state book would seem to advance religion and entangle government with faith.

But didn’t the Supreme Court uphold a Ten Commandments monument on capitol grounds in Texas in 2005?

Yes, it did that on the same day that it struck down the display of the Ten Commandments on government grounds in Kentucky. Here’s the difference. In the Texas case, the Ten Commandments monument was one of 39 monuments and historical markers spread over 22 acres on the capitol grounds. The court concluded that with that breadth of monuments, the Ten Commandments display was simply one more element of Texas history.

There’s a parallel here. Public schools are not allowed to celebrate Christmas per se, but they are absolutely free to recognize multiple religious holidays and celebrations as part of the educational process.

Imagine that instead of adopting an official state book, the Legislature adopted instead an official state library and designated 100 books of wisdom and cultural influence. In that setting, I don’t think you would have anyone objecting to the Bible being embraced.

Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University. The interview was conducted by Deborah Fisher, director of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

[456] MTSU-branded fire engine makes debut at Blue-White game

Murfreesboro Fire and Rescue truck will reside at Station 3 on Mercury Boulevard

MURFREESBORO — Murfreesboro Fire and Rescue Department and Middle Tennessee State University unveiled the city’s newest fire engine, complete with the university’s logos and colors, at a brief ceremony at noon Saturday, April 16, before the Blue-White spring football game.

The new truck will become MFRD’s Engine 3. The company, located on Mercury Boulevard, is the unit closest to the university’s campus.

The truck made its grand entrance just before noon in the Greenland Drive parking lot next to the Blue Raiders Athletic Association tailgate and near the Kennon Sports Hall of Fame. A brief press conference was held in front of the new fire truck, and Blue Raider cheerleaders and the university’s mascot, Lightning, posed with fans for pictures and will hand out posters.

“We are very proud to have Middle Tennessee State University in our city, and excited to increase the partnership between the university and the city as a whole,” said Fire Rescue Chief Mark Foulks. “Displaying the university logos on our apparatus that responds to MTSU is a great way for us to show that MFRD is True Blue.”

The Blue Raider Athletic Association and the university’s Office of Alumni Relations hosted a tailgate at the Greenland Lawn prior to the game. After the tailgate, the Middle Tennessee football team concluded spring drills with the annual Blue-White Spring Game presented by Kroger.

Visit www.GoBlueRaiders.com for a Spring Game recap and for more information about Blue Raider athletics. 

[455] Forrest Hall task force to hold final meeting April 19 to decide recommendation on name

Decision will then go to MTSU president for consideration

The meeting of the 17-member task force will begin at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the MT Center, located inside the Sam H. Ingram Building at 2269 Middle Tennessee Blvd. A searchable campus parking map is available at http://tinyurl.com/MTSUParkingMap

The meeting is open to the public. Those planning to attend are reminded of the ongoing construction along Middle Tennessee Boulevard.

The university announced last summer that it would engage the community on the name of the campus building that houses MTSU’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program and is named after Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Tuesday’s meeting follows an April 14 meeting at the same location at which task force members deliberated about the issue. Prior to that, three previous meetings were held at which public input was received. There will be no public comment at Tuesday's meeting, which is strictly for task force deliberations to come to a decision.

The task force, which is made up of students, faculty, alumni and community representatives, is chaired by MTSU professor Derek Frisby, a Civil War historian and faculty member in the Global Studies and Cultural Geography department.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee asked the panel to recommend by this month whether the building should be renamed; retain the name but with added historical perspective; or recommend that no action or change is warranted. The Tennessee Board of Regents would have to approve any recommended name change and the Tennessee Historical Commission would have to give approval as well.

For more information about the task force, including a list of its members, visit http://www.mtsu.edu/forresthall

[454] Tenn. insurance commissioner applauds newest Gamma Iota Sigma members

As president of the MTSU chapter of the Gamma Iota Sigma insurance fraternity, senior Cierra Baker of Athens, Tennessee, can quickly rattle off the benefits of being a member of the honorary professional group.

“You meet a lot people in the industry,” Baker said. “A lot of internships (are available) in the industry and a lot of scholarships.”

A finance and insurance major in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business, Baker is scheduled to graduate this December, with an internship lined up back home in Athens and with plans to get into sales once she gets her degree.

That’s good news to Julie Mix McPeak, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance and guest speaker Wednesday, April 13, for the induction ceremony for the newest members of Gamma Iota Sigma inside the Business and Aerospace Building.

“I’m pleased to see so many of you choosing insurance as a major,” McPeak told Baker and the other students, faculty, staff and alumni in attendance. “We really need bright people to be joining our industry right now. … And when you have those degrees, don’t forget about government service, because we need you too.”

Appointed in January 2011 by Gov. Bill Haslam to lead the department of 900-plus employees, McPeak gave an overview of her department’s responsibilities, including the critical roles of TennCare oversight, licensing insurance agents — Tennessee has more than 160,000 licensed agents — and making sure companies selling insurance in the state “are capable of meeting its obligations to consumers.”

The purpose of Gamma Iota Sigma is to encourage, establish and enhance the professionalism of students in the risk management, insurance, and actuarial science majors within the Jones College.

Inductee and MTSU senior Bashair Albalushi, an international student from Oman majoring in business finance and minoring in insurance, said her interest in joining the fraternity blossomed once she learned of the community service work that members do, such as homeless outreach.

“I think it will help me out as well when I graduate,” she said, adding that she’ll include fraternity membership on her resume. Also scheduled to graduate in December, Albalushi plans to pursue a master’s degree in finance and eventually land a banking position in the Chicago area.

MTSU junior and inductee Aaliyah Yisrael, a finance and insurance major from Jackson, Tennessee, said she took her first insurance class this spring and credited the encouragement of Dr. Emily Zietz, insurance professor in the Department of Economics and Finance, for prompting her to join the fraternity.

Yisrael said she’s looking forward to “getting to know people in the field” through Gamma Iota Sigma as well as seeing which areas of insurance she most enjoys. Right now, she’s leaning toward insurance underwriting.

For more information about Gamma Iota Sigma, visit http://www.mtsu.edu/gis/. For more information about MTSU’s insurance program, visit http://mtsu.edu/programs/insurance/.