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8th Circuit upholds ban on in-class Bible distribution

By The Associated Press
08.22.07

ST. LOUIS — A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a lower court ruling that prohibited the distribution of Bibles to grade school students in a southern Missouri school district.

At issue was a long-held practice at South Iron Elementary School in Annapolis, 120 miles southwest of St. Louis, in which Gideons International representatives came to fifth-grade classrooms and gave away Bibles. A U.S. district judge issued a temporary injunction last September.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, ruling in Doe v. South Iron R-1 School District, agreed yesterday that the classroom distribution should be prohibited.

Parents of some students first raised concerns about the Bible distribution in 2005. That fall, the school board voted 4-3 to allow the distribution to continue, even though then-Superintendent Homer Lewis, at the urging of the district’s insurance carrier and attorney, suggested an end to the practice. A day after the vote, the Gideons came to the school and distributed Bibles to both fifth-grade classrooms.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in February 2006 on behalf of four sets of parents, asking that the district be stopped “from further endorsement of religion.”

All four sets of parents are Christian, said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU office in St. Louis.

“Their objection is they don’t want the school telling their children what their religious beliefs should be,” Rothert said. “They believe that should be done at home with the family.”

Rothert said the ACLU was asking the district court to issue a permanent injunction banning the Bible distribution program.

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a conservative law group based in Florida that represented the school district, said the appeals court ruling concerned a practice no longer in place.

Staver said the district’s current policy allows people or groups to distribute literature — with approval from the district — before or after school or during lunch break, but not in the classrooms. The new policy is open to religious groups beyond the Gideons, he said, and is the subject of a pending court ruling at the district court level.

“That policy we will vigorously defend because we believe it’s a constitutionally sound policy,” Staver said. “It will provide for others, including the Gideons, the right to distribute literature.”

The district in Iron County has fewer than 500 students and just two schools — the grade school and South Iron High School. The rural county sits in the heart of the nation’s so-called Bible Belt and includes dozens of churches.

Gideons International, based in Nashville, distributes more than 63 million Bibles worldwide each year, according to the organization’s Web site. A spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment.


Update
Bible distribution halted in Mo. public school
Federal judge says giving Gideon Bibles to fifth graders at school conveys 'message of endorsement' of Christianity. 01.10.08

Previous
Judge orders Mo. school to stop Bible distribution
For now, Gideons ordered end giveaway to fifth-graders on school grounds or during school day. 09.09.06

Related

Missouri school officials halt Gideons' Bible giveaways

Parent's complaint also prompts Elsberry School District to bar group from making presentations during school day. 09.29.03

Missouri school district agrees to stop Bible distribution
Move settles lawsuit filed by Roman Catholic father who objected to Gideons International handing out religious material to students. 06.04.04

ACLU sues La. school system over Bible distribution
Lawsuit, which is fifth filed against Tangipahoa Parish over religion in 13 years, claims middle school principal improperly allowed people to hand out Gideon Bibles to students. 05.18.07

La. district's public schools ordered to stop Bible giveaways
Tangipahoa Parish school board says it will appeal federal district judge'summary judgment to 5th Circuit. 04.23.08

Distributing religious literature

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