For a pair of Mississippi lawmakers, the holy wars of the past aren’t past. They’re still present.
A bill proposed for the 2018 Mississippi legislative session seeks to add official legal protection to religious monuments and symbols on public grounds and strengthen penalties for removing or destroying monuments to the Confederacy.
State Rep. William Tracy Arnold, a Republican from Booneville in the northeast corner of the state, filed House Bill 281, a measure that provides legal protection for the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and “In God We Trust” displays on state property.
Arnold’s measure would also enhance criminal penalties for anyone trying to remove or deface any monument covered in the legislation, including monuments to the “War Between the States,” known in the rest of the country as the Civil War.
The maximum penalty for anyone convicted under the law would be up to 20 years in state prison and a fine of $10,000.
A second measure, House Bill 130, would make the Holy Bible the official state book of Mississippi.
The legislation, by Rep. Tom Miles, a Democrat from Forest, Mississippi, adds the Bible to the list of official state things, such as petrified wood as the official state stone and the spicebush swallowtail as the official state butterfly.
The bill is the second attempt by Miles to designate the Bible as the official state book. A similar measure failed in 2015. And, it is at least the third attempt by lawmakers in Southern states to give the Bible such a designation.
A Louisiana legislator withdrew a similar bill in 2014 after it became a distraction. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam vetoed a bill making the Bible the official state book in 2016, saying the legislation “trivializes” the book, which he considered a “sacred text.”
“Our founders recognized that when the church and state were combined, it was the church that suffered in the long run,” Haslam wrote in a veto message.
Arnold’s proposal touches on ongoing legal and social battles.
Across the country, there are about 1,500 Confederate monuments and cities and states are grappling with how to handle the symbols.
In Mississippi, there are dozens of monuments, including statues of Confederate soldiers outside most of Mississippi's county courthouses. The state also promotes Beauvoir, the home of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis.
And, Mississippi is the only remaining state to feature a Confederate battle flag as part of its state banner.
While courts are still sorting out the legal battles over removing Confederate symbols, there have been multiple rulings on religious symbols on public grounds.
Judges (and the U.S. Supreme Court) have concluded that some religious texts may be displayed on public grounds, but generally as part of a collage of other historical and legal documents and monuments.
Arnold’s bill makes no distinction as to how the religious monuments are displayed. Instead, it offers those on state property the protection of having “historical significance.”
Arnold’s measure defines that as “events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of state, local or national history, or that quality or qualities associated with the lives of persons significant in local, state or national history.”
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, known for his attempts to mix law and religion, was twice removed from the bench for disobeying U.S. Supreme Court rulings against a Ten Commandments monument on state property.
Should the new measures pass in Mississippi, the battles of the past will become the battles of the future once again.