Year of the Bible? Seriously?

A friendly reminder about the separation of church and state

UPDATE: According to a recent news report, the “Year of the Bible” measure may actually be repealed. We’re expecting a press conference from Rep. Mark Cohen about it next week. We’ll keep you posted.

Rep. Babette Josephs must really not want my vote. She, along with a slew of other state legislators, recently signed a resolution into law called the “Year of the Bible.” If you’ve never heard of it, it basically asks PA residents to celebrate the Bible in a big, big way. And while a resolution holds little actual political clout, it does send a dangerous message – one that champions one religious text over every other, and creates an inappropriately religious atmosphere where it does not belong: in government.

Here’s a portion of the resolution:

Whereas, this nation now faces great challenges that will test it as it has never been tested before; and whereas, renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people; therefore be it resolved, that the House of Representatives declare 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania in recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.

Sounds more like a sermon than a government proclamation, doesn’t it?

The irony here is that Pennsylvania was founded to be a haven of religious freedom, a place in which no one religion would be mandated and citizens would have the freedom to worship (or not) as they wish. It’s one of the reasons folks left for the New World in the first place. And here we are in 2012 stepping backwards. And in our own backyard, no less.

After learning about this new resolution on (where else?) Facebook, I immediately signed a petition against it, calling for a repeal on the grounds that the very essence of it violates the separation of church and state – something we should all hold dear regardless of our own spiritual convictions (or lack thereof). It also implicitly endorses one religious text above all others. For anyone who may defend this proclamation (there are plenty, I’m afraid), I offer this: Would you be quite as enthused if 2012 was declared the “Year of the Koran” or the “Year of the Tibetan Book of the Dead?”

Didn’t think so.

That’s why I wrote to my state representative Babette Josephs who’s in a unique position this year as she faces opposition from Brian Sims, an openly gay and generally open-minded candidate for state rep. And while Josephs has a long history of being LGBT-friendly, this latest move has me seriously questioning her motives. And she’s not alone. PA legislators like Taylor, O’Brien and Boyle also thought this resolution was a good idea (seriously, guys?).

Here’s how she responded:

I write in response to your displeasure with my vote cast in support of House Resolution 535, a noncontroversial resolution on the importance of the Bible in the formation of our nation and as a touchstone for many Pennsylvanians in today’s fragmented world.

Upon reflection, I see that what may appear to legislators as ‘noncontroversial’ may be anything but to you. And for that affront to your sensibilities, I do apologize.

But I want you to know that almost every session day legislatures across the country (and in Pennsylvania) legislators are asked to offer and pass resolutions proclaiming such things as Freedom Day, Cephalopod Awareness Day, Sleep Awareness Day, Hispanic Heritage Month, World Wetlands Day, Read to Your Child Day, World  Habitat Awareness Month – not to mention National Library Month, Arbor Day, Earth Day and – Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Perhaps you are reacting to United States Supreme Court decision which ended school prayers and Bible reading.  I thoroughly approve of that outcome, but what we do in the General Assembly is entirely different.  First, we are not impressionable children who are forced to obey their teachers.  Second, the law obliges children to be in school, but no elected official is required to be in the state House or to be on the Floor when religious sentiments are aired.    And finally, there is absolutely nothing that stops us from voting “no” or raising a point of order if we wish.  I chose not to vote “no” or to make a fuss, because there are many people who get guidance every day and draw their strength all the time from the Bible (without specifying what Bible), and I have respect for those feelings and religious beliefs.

These ‘recognition’ or ‘awareness’ days, weeks or months like HR 535 are proclaimed to honor initiatives and ideas that many Americans hold dear.  They are not meant to be prescriptions for behavior or allegiance.

Please consider that Thanksgiving Day, now a national paid holiday, began in 1607 when settlers ordained “… that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon [plantation] in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”  No one is forced to believe as the settlers may have believed – but we all welcome the day of rest, the community, the history and the food.  Similarly, our Liberty Bell commemorates the golden anniversary of Penn’s Charter with the quotation inscribed on the bell for all to see, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” from Leviticus 25:10.

That is the spirit in which I voted for this resolution.  I appreciate your comments.

With respect to Josephs, the frivolous “Talk Like a Pirate Day” hardly compares to the pro-Christian “Year of the Bible,” a distinction that asks Pennsylvanians to not only look to the Bible for guidance, but to heed its message. Even though Josephs calls the resolution innocuous, mixing religion with state politics is a bad idea in my book.

But just because someone opposes the resolution does not mean one is anti-Bible by any means. Quite the contrary. It’s a damn good read. I should know. I attended Catholic school for 12 years. And I learned that the Bible is a fascinating book for anyone who wants to better understand the building blocks of Christianity. But it’s not the sort of reading material I expect to find on my state-mandated reading list. At all.

Plus (and I know this upsets some people), not everyone believes in God, let alone the Christian idea of a God. It’s as if these legislators have conveniently forgotten about all the atheist, Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu voters in Pennsylvania who, like me, may take exception to this over-reaching, faith-based resolution. I hazard a guess that there are even quite a few Christians who may feel queasy about government doling out religious advice.

And that’s hardly “noncontroversial,” Rep. Josephs. A resolution like this has the power to usher in other equally foolish ones that make it even more difficult to have a political conversation without the word “God” in it. It’s something that has already marred GOP politics in recent years. I would expect more from my Democratic legislators.

As a tax payer, it pains me that my legislators are taking time to vote on something like this when there are other critical issues on the table, like being protected from losing your job if you’re gay or being able to marry your partner – legally. If these legislators spent more time on issues that matter to us without excluding people on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, Pennsylvania would be a much better place for everyone.

If you agree with me, click here to sign this petition.