Pennsylvania taxpayers bought their legislators new holy books again this year, an odd tradition that apparently dates back decades but is now causing concern for church-state separatists. “The fact that these legislators are receiving any holy book from the state wrongly entangles government with religion. The Constitution demands that the state remain neutral when it comes to matters of faith,” Americans United for Church-State Separation argues.
As unconstitutional, tax-funded, faith-based initiatives go, this one is relatively neutral and inexpensive. Pennsylvania’s 228 legislators were asked to choose from a wide range of holy books, ranging in price from $30-$90 a piece ($15 extra if they want it embossed with their names). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 72 members chose the New American Catholic Bible, by far the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s best-seller. State Rep. Chris Ross (R-Christian) ordered a copy of the Qur’an “because he had always wanted to read it.” State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Jewish) got a Qur’an by mistake, but exchanged it for his sixth tax-funded copy of the Torah. Eight legislators (Unitarians, no doubt) declined the offer.
You’ve got to wonder why it didn’t occur to Pennsylvania legislators that they could have spent the $13,700 on more constitutionally appropriate gifts — say Starbucks’ coupons, books on the First Amendment, or copies of Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed 2009-2010 budget that cuts $417 million for school textbooks.
But Pennsylvania taxpayers aren’t the first to fund sacred textbooks. The first Continental Congress agreed to publisher Robert Aitken’s request to endorse his Bible, the first published in the new nation. Unfortunately, despite the government endorsement, the Bible was a commercial failure. Congress later declined Aitken’s bailout request to buy his leftover Bibles and give them to soldiers.
From 1904 to 1957, new members of Congress received copies of “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” the so-called Jefferson Bible, at taxpayer expense. The practice was ended quietly, but in 1997 a Nebraska professor named Judd W. Patton began sending the Jefferson Bible to new Congressmen at his own expense.
Jefferson’s Bible, by the way, is an edited version of the New Testament that excludes all verses pertaining to miracles or the supernatural. Patton teaches economics, which apparently also prohibits miracles and other supernatural occurrences.
The Bible (God’s, not Jefferson’s) is also on this year’s congressional agenda. In January, Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia, (R-Christian), founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, introduced a resolution “Calling upon the Capitol Preservation Commission and the Office of the Architect of the Capitol to place the Lincoln-Obama Bible on permanent display upon the Lincoln table at the Capitol Visitor Center for the benefit of all its visitors to fully understand and appreciate America’s history and Godly heritage.”
The resolution asks Congress to stipulate that “Whereas the Holy Bible is God’s Word.” It was referred to committee, presumably so members could pray about it.