Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Gideon controversy offers opportunity to learn

A controversy has emerged in Victoria over the distribution of Bibles to students at Aloe Elementary School.

Two men who are associated with the Gideons International ministry that has handed out Bibles at schools, hotels, hospitals prisons and more for years came to the school May 8, spoke to students and set up a table where students could come and pick up a Bible if they wanted to. Thomas Crow, a practicing Buddhist and father of 10-year-old Aloe student Emma Crow, said he was not bothered by men teaching Christianity but objected to the presentation of religious material during the school day.

The Victoria Independent School District released a statement that explained the district's long-standing policy has allowed the Gideons to bring Bibles to Victoria schools for about 20 years. The standard requires materials to not be commercial in nature and not be offensive or violate community standards of acceptable behavior. The 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," the statement said.

We are glad to know the Gideons have been following a consistent guideline for years. However, the issue is one that raises questions about the enforcement of the First Amendment in schools. Public schools are places that many consider to be religion-free zones. Students are free to have their own beliefs, but no religious ideals are taught or endorsed as part of the curriculum. That separation allows schools to promote education for anyone, no matter their personal beliefs.

In the case of the Gideons, the school should have taken the effort to inform parents that the group would be coming to the campus. If the Gideons were outside the school before the day began and after the day ended or came to the campus as part of an extracurricular activity, that would have been acceptable.

If the district wishes to offer students an opportunity to learn about religions, which do play a role in the cultures of the world, perhaps it should consider creating a day devoted to religious studies with various groups invited to take part and offer presentations with a focus on education. If an official day is set aside, that would also make it easier for parents to be aware and let their child opt out of the activities.

It is true, religion is a part of our society and heavily influences cultures around the world. It is certainly worth teaching the history of religion and its influence on society, but no particular religion should be endorsed or promoted. It may be time for the district to reexamine its policies when it comes to the Gideons and any other group that wants to take time during the school day to present a religious viewpoint.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.