ST. LOUIS — A southeast Missouri school district must end a Bible giveaway program for fifth-graders for now, a federal judge in St. Louis has ruled in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.
The preliminary injunction adds another school to a long list of small-town schools that, since the 1950s, have either been forced to stop or have voluntarily stopped distributing the pocket-sized Gideons International Bible. The cases were often initiated by the ACLU.
South Iron Elementary School in Annapolis wrongly allowed the Bible handouts solely to promote Christianity to students and must end the program until a final order is given, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry in St. Louis ruled late Sept. 6.
A final ruling in the case is not expected for months.
The ACLU's most recent complaint was filed in February in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. The lawsuit sought to prohibit the elementary school about 120 miles southwest of St. Louis from distributing Gideons-provided Bibles in classrooms.
The suit was filed on behalf of two sets of parents from the district.
"This ruling is a victory for parents who want to direct the religious upbringing of their children without interference from public schools," Eastern Missouri ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert said in a statement.
The defendants in the case were represented by Liberty Counsel, part of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and a request to dismiss the case was rejected.
"The defendants were repeatedly told that their actions violated the Constitution, but they chose not to heed those cautions," Perry wrote in the ruling to stop the practice temporarily.
The superintendent for South Iron County R-I School District, Bradley Crocker, referred all comments to Liberty Counsel. Erik Stanley, a Liberty Counsel attorney, called the judge's ruling unconstitutional and said the school district planned to fight the case and exercise all of its options.
For years, the school in the town of 300 residents quietly allowed the Gideons International group to hand out Bibles to children in the fifth grade. In 2005, concerns were raised about the practice, leading to months of discussion. The district superintendent then, Homer Lewis, asked that the Bible handouts stop after consulting with the district's insurance company and attorney.
School board members ultimately decided in a 4-3 vote to let the program continue in the small Iron County district with fewer than 500 students.
The judge's preliminary injunction calls for an end to the practice on school property or at anytime during the school day.
Gideons, based in Nashville, Tenn., distributes more than 63 million pocket-sized Bibles worldwide each year in hotels, prisons, hospitals and schools, according to the organization's Web site.
A spokesman for the Bible distributor refused to comment.
The Bibles were last given to Annapolis fifth-graders in October, and another giveaway planned for this year has not happened.
In June 2004, a rural Kansas City, Mo., school district agreed to end similar distribution of Gideons Bibles to elementary-school children.
The long-standing practice there stopped after the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Roman Catholic father of three in the Smithville R-II School District.
In 2002, a small-town middle school in Rushville, Ohio, outside Columbus, voluntarily stopped letting Gideons distribute Bibles after parents complained.
Court challenges of Bible distribution first emerged in New Jersey in the 1950s. In 1985, an Iowa school district agreed to stop handing out Gideons Bibles to fifth-graders in Iowa public schools.
Last week, a federal judge in St. Louis ordered a southeast Missouri school district to end school-initiated or sponsored prayer or other religious activities. The order resulted from an ACLU suit filed on behalf of a non-Christian family.