8th Circuit upholds ban on in-class Bible distribution

By The Associated Press

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.