Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Getting the Bible out of the Bible Belt!

On January 5, 2010, just outside of Nashville in Wilson County Tennessee, the Wilson County School Board agreed to desist with their annual distribution of Bibles to elementary schools students. Earlier in the school year, all of the 5th graders of Carroll-Oakland Elementary School, including Joann Doe, were taken to an assembly and introduced by the school’s principal to a contingent of representatives of The Gideons. After being told by their principal about her first time being given a Bible, The Gideons proceeded to tell the students about their world-wide Bible distributions. After this speech, each student was called up to the front of the assembly to receive their own copy of the bible; however, the taking of a Bible was not mandatory.

Like the other students of her class, Joann Doe felt pressured to go up and retrieve a Bible of her own due to fear of being ostracized and mocked by her peers. At this point, all the students returned to their respective classrooms and were instructed by their teachers to write their names in their Bibles for “personal use.”

Shortly thereafter, John and Jane Doe, Joann’s parents, went to the ACLU to complain about the Bible circulation. After receiving a letter threatening a lawsuit if the Bible dispersion did not desist, the Wilson County Board of Education agreed to stop the annual distribution of Bibles at Carroll-Oakland Elementary and all other Wilson County Schools.

The agreement “prohibits all Wilson County Schools employees from promoting, endorsing and acquiescing in the distribution of Bibles to students of the Wilson County Schools on school grounds during school hours.”

What is particularly interesting about this case is that former Governor of Arkansas, Republican Party Presidential Candidate, and ordained Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee agreed with the ACLU ban on Bibles!

During an interview on the TV show Fox & Friends Huckabee is quoted as stating, “You don’t want the school imposing a religious doctrine on kids. They’re absolutely right. And it’s very difficult for me to ever come to the place where I say I agree with the ACLU.”

This instance of Bible distribution is incredibly similar to other cases surrounding the religion and public school debates. It is clear in this case that the ACLU, along with the Doe family, is concerned with the implicit coercion effect that this has on the students. This is very similar to the situation presented in the Lee v. Weisman graduation ceremony conflict. While the school did not require each student to come up and receive a Bible, the assembly was in fact mandatory. We see a similar situation in Lee v. Weisman as students were not required to join in or stand for the prayer at the graduation ceremony, and in fact not technically “required” to attend graduation; however, one faces the same sort of ostracism and mockery by abstaining from or not attending the event.

Although this case was not taken to the courts, I believe the same outcome would have occurred. While the principal of the school did not mandate that each child take home a Bible, the teacher later had them each write their names in their individual Bibles for “personal use.” If this isn’t an act of coercion, I’m not entirely sure what is! I’m even more shocked to find myself agreeing with Huckabee in his statement that “you don’t want the school imposing a religious doctrine on kids.”

What I’d like to think about with this situation is a hypothetical situation. What if they school board had refused to sign the agreement? If this case had gone to the courts, do we think the courts would strike down the school’s practice of Bible distribution? On what grounds would they have done so? Coercion? Or, do we think the courts might have upheld the practice since “technically” the taking of a Bible was not mandated by the school officials? Just some food for thought…


Gavin C. said...

For me, this case literally hits close to home. Twenty-two years ago, I was a fifth grade student outside of Chattanooga, TN, and I remember having an assembly just like the one described in the article where I was given a “pocket” New Testament. My school was comprised mostly of Christians, and I remember that I did not understand why the one Jewish student in my class did not want his copy. I am surprised that this practice has continued into the new Millennium. Clearly there is no secular purpose for this assembly and distribution of sacred texts, and a public school encouraging this practice constitutes a promotion of religion. However, I do feel that sacred texts should be made available to students who might be interested in reading them. To this end, I think school libraries should have copies of sacred texts from different major religions. Some might argue that including such texts in a public school library is likewise a promotion of religion. However, banning them from public schools would be an oppression of religion, which would be a more egregious violation of Establishment.

Christa L said...

I also went to an elementary school in which Gideon Bibles were passed out to all of the students in the classrooms. If I remember correctly, they were actually physically given to us - there really wasn't much chance for any of us to refuse to accept them.

I think Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe would offer excellent precedents. In Lee, even though a rabbi gave the prayer, the school appeared to be endorsing (and thus, establishing) religion because they had invited the rabbi and gave him guidelines in what to say. In Santa Fe, though the students would vote on whether or not to say pregame prayers and on who would say the prayer, the prayer would appear to be endorsed by the school. Because the assembly is mandatory, the principal tells a story about receiving a Bible, and then the teacher tells the students to write their names in the Bible, it appears that the school is endorsing this religious text. If I was a Supreme Court justice, this is how I would rule anyway...

Teresa M said...

Several thoughts spring forth upon reading this blog post and the two responses (so far). My immediate reaction to the situation was not so much the distribution of Gideon bibles to students, rather the immediate scramble to the ACLU. As has been clearly pointed out, the Supreme Court has made clear how religion is unconstitutional as well as how religion is constitutional in public schools. Therefore, the need to run toward this legal Goliath rather than a local legal person seems overkill and an attempt to make a statement beyond the immediate situation. After all, the ACLU merely wrote a strongly worded letter to the school board, who apparently knew at some level that this was a practice on its last breath. The school board buckled with little persuasion.

Republican though he is, Senator Huckabee is very familiar with the legalities of religion in public schools; he did after all run for President. He plainly stated that handing out bibles is fine as long as other religious texts are given equal opportunities to do so. Even so, this practice fails every test the Supreme Court has used to decide how religion may or may not be present in schools.

Is there anyone who managed to get through school without getting a Gideon bible? And yet, I could not tell you who the Gideons are. As a disposable item (as opposed to abstract thought or message), the effect of the distribution for many is most likely negligible since the student may immediately discard the book. The real effect remains the burden of the non-Christian student who is placed in a situation beyond their ability to logically negotiate. The Supreme Court has consistently said that students are a captive audience with no real option to avoid unwanted religious messages.

weinerjoy said...

The South is a strange place. Many southerners continue to yearn for the antebellum “freedom” to lord over someone and band together in dictating Christian rule. The diversity and southern hospitality doesn’t always belie the strained acceptance of outsiders. By outsiders, I mean non-Christians.
This week, our class detailed cases involving public schools and the legality of differing creation stories. The legal cases and this school Bible story both resulted from authority figures imposing religious beliefs upon children. It’s very interesting that in all of the years that this school has been passing out Bibles, this family was the first to take action. But that’s a serious issue to me. Every day, the Establishment Clause is trampled upon and personal liberties are disregarded because it is assumed that every participant at work, school, or in whatever public space, hold the same beliefs.