NEW ORLEANS — Tangipahoa Parish public schools must stop in-school Bible giveaways to students, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
"Distribution of Bibles is a religious activity without a secular purpose" and amounts to school board promotion of Christianity, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier ruled. That violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state, he wrote.
As requested by both sides, Barbier made a summary judgment based only on the written briefs — something judges may do only if the law is absolutely clear.
But attorney Christopher M. Moody said late yesterday that the Tangipahoa Parish School Board decided to ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Barbier's decision. "We think our chances on appeal are very good," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed the suit for an anonymous family whose daughter said she felt pressured into taking a Bible even though she doesn't believe in God. The girl was called Jane Roe and her father John Roe out of fear of retaliation by schoolmates and neighbors, the ACLU has said.
"Jane Roe states that she accepted the Bible because if she did not, her classmates would have 'picked on' her," Barbier wrote. "She feared they would call her 'devil worshipper.'"
Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU chapter, said, "A child shouldn't have to choose between her family's beliefs and the wishes of school administrators."
Jane Roe was a fifth-grader at Loranger Middle School when Gideons International visited on May 9, 2007. Principal Andre Pellerin notified fifth-grade teachers that the group would be on campus all day, giving away Bibles outside his office. His e-mail said, "Please stress to students that they DO NOT have to get a bible," according to Barbier.
However, the judge wrote, even procedures upheld as neutral for secondary-school students might be out of bounds for "an impressionable young elementary-age child."
He cited a 1998 ruling that upheld a West Virginia county's system of putting both religious and nonreligious material on a secondary-school table where students could walk past it. However, grade-school children might not understand that the school board was not endorsing any of the materials, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in Peck et. al. v. Upshur County Board of Education.
At Loranger, the table outside the principal's office also created the impression that the school was endorsing Christianity, Barbier wrote.
Moody said the school board was working on a policy along the lines of the one cited by Barbier, but it was still being developed. But, he said, the board believes the current policy is legal. "We did not allow the Gideons or anyone else to distribute Bibles in the classroom. We didn't require any student to take a Bible. They were just available right at the front door."
He also said, "The Gideons distribute to most systems in the state. The ACLU only wants to pick on us."
The ACLU has filed seven suits accusing the Tangipahoa Parish School Board of promoting Christianity in schools. Most challenged the board's prayer policies. Esman said the ACLU sues only if someone makes a valid complaint to the organization. "If somebody from another area of the state contacted us, we would be happy to look at that one as well."