A school district in Tennessee has agreed to stop handing out Gideon Bibles to students during the school day, under threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Tennessee chapter of the ACLU wrote Wilson County school officials in October, on behalf of the parents of a fifth-grade student. The parents objected to their daughter being pressured to come forward and take a Bible, along with fellow students.
The parents, who were not identified by the ACLU, said their daughter was brought into a school gym with other fifth-graders during the school day for a presentation by a representative of The Gideons International. The organization is known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms and handing out free New Testaments in various public settings around the world.
The girl’s teacher announced she would be calling students, by row, to come forward and take a Bible from a basket. After returning to the classroom, the teacher instructed students to write their names in their Bibles.
While the teacher told students it was not mandatory for them to take a Bible, the ACLU said the girl did so only because she feared being embarrassed and ostracized by her friends if she refused.
“Decisions about religion should be left in the hands of families and faith communities, not public school officials,” said Edmund Schmidt, an ACLU cooperating attorney. “The vital constitutional principle of religious liberty is best protected when the government stays out of religion. Students and their families cannot feel comfortable expressing their religious beliefs when their teachers and administrators are imposing their own particular religious beliefs.”
In a legally binding agreement on Dec. 4, school officials pledged to “immediately and forever cease promoting, endorsing and acquiescing in the distribution of Bibles to students of Wilson County schools on school grounds during school hours.”
“The signed agreement ensures that the school system will not endorse one particular religious belief over another, and that all students attending Wilson County public schools will be treated fairly and have the right to choose whether to practice their faith, without school officials taking sides,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee.
This isn’t the first time school officials in the rapidly growing county east of Nashville have steered into rocky shoals while trying to navigate the sometimes murky legal waters between what constitutes an establishment of a religion – prohibited by the First Amendment – and the free exercise of religion that the First Amendment guarantees.
In May, the Alliance Defense Fund sued an elementary school in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., for removing religious language from posters drawn by students to promote a “See You at the Pole” prayer event.
That was after a federal judge ruled that allowing a group of parents to pray in the cafeteria and pass out fliers to students at the same school violated the First Amendment.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.