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Parent questions legality of distributing Bibles in public school

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 10, 2014 at 12:10 a.m.
Updated May 12, 2014 at 12:12 a.m.

Holding a Gideon Bible, Thomas Crow, of Victoria, left, stands with his daughter Emma, 10, at Aloe Elementary School in Victoria. Crow has raised questions about the ethical concerns of a group that offered Bibles during a physical education class Emma was participating in  Wednesday. "I'm not troubled by what they're teaching," Crow said, "But it opens up the floodgates - if you're going to allow one group in, you have to let everyone in."

When Emma Crow, 10, returned home from Aloe Elementary School on Thursday, she informed her father she received a Bible during physical education class.

Thomas Crow, a practicing Buddhist, was not pleased.

"It tripped me out. They won't even let the kids pray at school, so I didn't understand why they're giving out Bibles," said Crow, 36, of Victoria. "I have no problem with the kids learning about religion in school, but how would other parents feel if everyone of every religion starting coming in the schools and giving out the Quran or other religious books?"

Emma said the two men giving out the miniature New Testament and Psalms Bibles visited her class for about an hour. They put the books out on a table and told the students they could pick one up if they desired.

"They came in and talked to us and said we could take a Bible," Emma said. "We went on the track and playground, and then we came back in, and we got one after class."

The men were part of Gideons International, an international ministry known for public evangelizing and distributing Bibles, primarily in hotels, schools, colleges, prisons, jails, hospitals and medical offices.

Emma's father said as a Buddhist, he's personally fascinated with all religious study and wasn't bothered the men were endorsing or preaching Christianity. But he said he doesn't like the idea of strange men representing any religious faith approaching his daughter with literature at school.

"My concern is allowing a religious group of any kind - mine or someone else's - handing out their books and stuff during school hours," he said. "That's not the time for that."

Robert Jaklich, VISD superintendent, released a statement to the Advocate on Friday stating the school has a long-standing policy about the process of distributing non-school-related literature to students, as protected by the First Amendment.

As long as the materials are non-commercial in orientation and are not offensive or violate community standards of acceptable behavior, the school district "may impose time, place and manner regulations and may reserve its facilities for their intended purposes . as long as the regulation on speech is reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker's view."

Jaklich further stated that the Gideons have provided Bibles for VISD students for about 20 years and have always followed district protocol for distribution of literature.

Some of the protocol, he said, include the men checking in and out of the front office and showing proper identification, introducing themselves to the students and placing the Bibles on a table for display and pickup rather than handing them out to students.

"The representatives did not coerce any student into taking a Bible," Jaklich said. "Their visit on campus was done in complete compliance with VISD policies and protocols."

Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement that the distribution of Bibles at public school during school hours is unconstitutional.

"We're concerned about reports of Gideons distributing Bibles to young children during class time. Courts have held such practices unconstitutional and for good reason. Children's religious instruction should be left to parents, and school administrators interfere with that parental right when they allow outsiders to come on campus and hand out religious materials," Robertson said. "Whether it's a Bible, a Quran or the Book of Mormon that a group wants to distribute, adults shouldn't be evangelizing our kids at school."

Kevin Lewis, professor of theology and law at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., and founder and president of the Institute for Theology and Law, said while he is a staunch supporter of freedom of religion and supports Christians practicing their faith in the public forum, he, too, was surprised the Gideons were distributing Bibles at the public school during class time.

As a general rule, he said, if the Gideons were distributing the materials from a public sidewalk or road near the school or if they were invited on campus as guest speakers or to participate in a student-led religious or prayer group, their contact with the students would be considered voluntary and therefore not a hindrance on anyone's religious freedoms.

"They could give out any literature they wanted at that point because it's considered voluntary contact with the students," Lewis said. "In a public forum or on a public sidewalk, they can say whatever they want."

But because the Gideons were distributing materials during class time - when the students are required to be there and cannot choose not to be in class - the students' contact with the religious materials may no longer be considered voluntary.

Lewis also mentioned there are certain restrictions to exercising free speech in the context of the First Amendment.

"Content-based restrictions and time, place and manner restrictions apply when exercising free speech in public, semi-public and private forums," he said.

Public forums, he defined, are public sidewalks, parks and other similar locations where the government cannot restrict a person's free speech.

The government may, however, restrict the time, manner or place in which he or she says it - as in the government cannot prevent a person from the content he or she speaks or distributes, but he or she may have restrictions on the time he or she says it, the manner he or she says it or the place he or she says it.

"The time, place and manner restrictions are not to restrict the content, but for example, if someone is giving out literature and blocking a sidewalk, the government can say they have to move because 'We're trying to get to work, and you're blocking the sidewalk,'" Lewis said.

The government has a bit more latitude in restricting content in semipublic forums, such as public schools, as long as it does not endorse any particular religion, which would violate the establishment clause under the First Amendment.

But in semipublic forums, the government is legally required to allow free speech with respect to the students.

The students in this case were not the ones distributing the Bibles at the school - the Gideons were - which makes the activity a private, though not student-led, activity.

Lewis also said a person or private organization's free speech may be blocked if the content is not considered reasonable or legitimate or is inflammatory or riot-provoking.

"There can be a legitimate reason for the government to restrict religious content. Generally, you can speak freely unless, for example, you're speaking about Nazi movements or speech that's heavily racist. Then, the government can attempt to end it at that point because it may cause public rioting," Lewis said. "That would be a content restriction."

Crow said his daughter has not been traumatized by the Gideons distributing Bibles, and he insists he isn't angry at the school district for allowing this activity.

But he thinks his daughter and the rest of the students should have the opportunity to learn about faith from their parents, and the parents should be informed when events like this happen on campus.

"We didn't know the Gideons were there, and that's a problem because that means anybody can come up and hang out at the school," he said. "Whether the school approved this or they came on campus and the school didn't know about it, I see it being a huge problem either way."



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