Did Congress Declare the Bible the ‘Word of God’?
On April 30 2019, the following post appeared (archived here) claiming Congress declared the Bible the “Word of God” via an October 1982 law, and promptly went viral. It shows an image of yellowed paper that appears to be an official declaration from Congress, and above labeling for “Public Law 97-280,” a title reads:
CONGRESS DECLARES BIBLE
“THE WORD OF GOD”
That assertion was far more prominent and noticeable than text underneath it, reading:
Authorizing and requesting the President to proclaim 1983 as the “Year of the Bible”.
Additional tiny text not as noticeable as the top portion appeared at the bottom of the image, “Scriptures for America” and an address. “Scriptures for America” is a private organization, also known as the white identitarian LaPorte Church of Christ. That entity is not in any way responsible for publishing or wording official government declarations under either name.
As it appeared on the paper, Public Law 97-280 does exist. Passed on October 4 1982 [PDF], it existed to authorize and request U.S. President Ronald Reagan to declare 1983 the “Year of the Bible”:
97TH UNITED STATES CONGRESS 1ST SESSION
A joint resolution authorizing and requesting the President to proclaim 1983 as the “Year of the Bible”.
Whereas the Bible, the Word of God, has made a unique contribution in shaping the United States as a distinctive and blessed nation and people;
Whereas deeply held religious convictions springing from the Holy Scriptures led to the early settlement of our Nation;
Whereas Biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States;
Whereas many of our great national leaders-among them Presidents Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and Wilson-paid tribute to the surpassing influence of the Bible in our country’s development, as in the words of President Jackson that the Bible is “the rock on which our Republic rests”;
Whereas the history of our Nation clearly illustrates the value of voluntarily applying the teachings of the Scriptures in the lives of individuals, families, and societies;
Whereas this Nation now faces great challenges that will test this Nation as it has never been tested before; and
Whereas that renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through Holy Scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people:
Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
That the President is authorized and requested to designate 1983 as a national “Year of the Bible” in recognition of both the formative influence the Bible has been for our Nation, and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.
In its second point, Public Law 97-280 described the Bible as “the Word of God,” but the request in question was solely to name 1983 the Year of the Bible. In turn, President Reagan signed Proclamation 5018, reading in part:
The Congress of the United States, in recognition of the unique contribution of the Bible in shaping the history and character of this Nation, and so many of its citizens, has by Senate Joint Resolution 165 authorized and requested the President to designate the year 1983 as the “Year of the Bible.”
Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, in recognition of the contributions and influence of the Bible on our Republic and our people, do hereby proclaim 1983 the Year of the Bible in the United States. I encourage all citizens, each in his or her own way, to reexamine and rediscover its priceless and timeless message.
In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this third day of February, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and seventh.
In their provisions, neither Public Law 97-280 nor Proclamation 5018 carried any actionable provisions. Nevertheless, atheist groups challenged the former on the grounds they were injurious to Americans not adhering to Christian faiths. A lawsuit filed in late 1982 in Wisconsin sought to challenge those acts, arguing in part that the two actions violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution:
The boldness and aggressiveness of P.L. 97-280 cannot be ignored. It pronounces the bible to be “the Word of God” and it calls for the presidential designation of 1983 in recognition of our national need “to apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.” P.L. 97-280 represents a Congressional pronouncement and, if the President makes his designation in the terms of P.L. 97-280, a pronouncement by the government of the United States that truth and virtue lie within the bible and that falseness and evil lie without it. The implication is so powerful as hardly to be described as implication, that those who fail or refuse to accept and to apply biblical teachings abide in falseness and evil. To be subjected to such reproach by one’s government is to suffer bona fide injury.
In denying the plaintiff’s motion for an injunction with respect to both acts a judge opined, in essence, that Public Law 97-280 was in no way powerful enough to threaten the Establishment Clause:
The injury with which plaintiff is threatened is serious. It would be irreparable. Once the President had designated 1983 as “the Year of the Bible,” incorporating the terms of P.L. 97-280, later efforts by him to repair the damage could hardly be totally successful. Remedies at law, such as money damages, would be unavailable. Nixon v. Fitzgerald, ___ U.S. ___, 102 S. Ct. 2690, 73 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1982). On the other hand, unless I were to find as a fact, judicially, that the bible is indeed “the Word of God,” a finding from which I consider myself constitutionally prohibited, one or two years of delay in the designation of a “Year of the Bible” appear not unduly injurious to the defendant President, the Congress, and those who desire such a designation. Also, if the circumstances of this case ever permit a judgment on the merits, it appears that plaintiff enjoys a reasonably good chance to succeed in her contention that P.L. 97-280 and any presidential designation expressed in the terms of P.L. 97-280, violate the establishment clause of the first amendment.
As chief executive it is surely within the power of the President to exhort the entire nation to mark 1983 as a year of reflection and contemplation. It is surely within his power to exhort the people of the United States in 1983 to draw upon those wonderfully rich and various wellsprings of tradition [–] ethnic, regional, religious, and non-religious [–] from which they draw their strength and resolve. It is surely within his power to identify and to proclaim his own tradition and to express his respect for those differing but equally proud traditions. To accomplish such constitutional exhortation in the context of a “Year of the Bible” would be a remarkable feat. But doubt that he can perform it does not justify the exercise of the injunctive power of this court against the President, if such power exists.
The circulating Facebook post does not represent an authentic Congressional document, although the “Year of the Bible” was. The document appeared to have been printed and sold by a fringe “Christian Identity” church, which added the “CONGRESS DECLARES THE BIBLE THE ‘WORD OF GOD'” title.