Friday, April 1, 2016

Not Just Bibles in Backpacks...

Last week, schools in Delta County, Colorado agreed to have atheist and satanic literature distributed in their high schools and middle schools starting April 1st of this year. Many of the district’s parents are extremely upset about this matter. The materials will not be actively distributed, but placed on a table in the school library where students can access it if they choose. The atheist and satanic materials are said to include  works entitled “What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments?”, “Top 10 Public School State-Church Violations and How to Stop Them,” and “The Satanic Big Book of Activities.”

While this may seem like a surprising situation, the motivation behind the placement of the satanic and atheist literature in the school is very important. The initiative for the placement of the materials comes from groups like The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FRF) and Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers (WCAF). These groups are mainly acting in response to the fact that Gideon Bibles were distributed in the Delta School district in December 2015. A student supposedly complained about the presence of the Bibles and these organizations are looking to get their materials distributed in response.

 The distribution of all these materials is part of the schools “open forum” policy on non-curricular materials that are distributed in the school. The school argues that their policy directly reads that they cannot discriminate between any groups that distribute materials in their schools. The school district feels that if they are going to have information available from non-religious organizations like the Boy Scouts, then all information should be equally available to students. The only exceptions the school policy makes are for materials that promote violence or hostility, are commercial advertisements, contain obscenity or are pornographic, and promote candidates during an election. In their quest to get atheist and satanic literature distributed, the FRF and WCAF are really looking to push for a change in the schools policy that will result in a stricter separation of church and state. They see the distribution of the bibles as a breach of the separation between church and state and are using their materials to bring light to the issue.

The underlying issue in this case is whether or not the presence of these materials in public schools violates the separation of church and state that is created by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The FRF and WCAF see the presence of religious material like the Gideon Bibles in a public school as a violation of the First Amendment. However, the school policy on distributing information is constructed like an open forum, so it is constructed in a manner that is neutral between religion and non-religion. The purpose of the policy is to provide students with diverse viewpoints and provide them with beneficial information, not necessarily to advance religion. Therefore, the two main questions raised by this case are: Does the presence of non-curricular religious materials in a public school district violate the Establishment clause of the first amendment and breach the separation of church and state? Or, is the school required to treat religious and non-religious materials equally in order to maintain neutrality between religion and non-religion?

Following the holdings in cases like Widmar v. Vincent and Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the ideas of equal access for religious and non-religious groups and the secular purpose of providing students with information would suggest that allowing religious materials, and in turn atheist and satanic literature, in the schools is not unconstitutional. The material is not actually handed out by schools officials nor is it created or endorsed by the school. The material is placed in the school by private groups and therefore is a form of private speech endorsing those viewpoints, not the school or government speech endorsing religion . Additionally, students are not coerced to engage with the material in any way, but rather it is simply made available to them if they wish to be informed on it. The school policy on non-curricular materials is constructed to treat religion and non-religion the same, which satisfies the neutrality principle that is so often invoked in First Amendment cases. This also means that if the Gideon Bibles can be distributed, the satanic and atheistic literature should be as well. Changing the school policy to prohibit either types of these non-curricular materials from being distributed in the school would not be a neutral act. In order to stay neutral between religion and non-religion, the school policy must treat the material from all outside groups the same.


What do you think? Should all private groups be able to distribute non-curricular information in public schools? Or does the potential for religious information to be distributed constitute a threat to the establishment clause of the first amendment?

6 comments:

Houtan Bozorghadad said...

Private institutions should not be able to provide religious materials to public schools because it would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Equal Access Act states that limited open forums should not discriminate based on religion, political view, or philosophical content, but there is a significant state interest in not allowing religious content to be distributed at a public school. A public school is intended to be secular and having Christian, atheistic, satanic, or other texts directed towards religion should not be distributed at public schools. Allowing students to get these texts now makes religious education a part of their educational experience, which goes against what original leaders such as Horace Mann and James Madison intended education to be.

Sarah A said...

I have to side with Becca here. As Becca points out, the presence of religious material in schools has been held constitutional when it is in an open forum. This is a lot like the other blog posts that have discussed the presence of religious statues and prayers. Once a minority (and specifically satanist) view has been proposed, there is quickly backlash from the community, even when the ten commandments, or bibles, etc. have never caused as much alarm. To stop the satanist specifically is directly making a law regarding religion, which the establishment clause prohibits. This is exactly what happened in the animal sacrifice (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah).

Maddie G said...

I agree with Becca and Sarah. If the school is going to put out materials from some religious groups, they have to accept materials from all religious groups in order to remain neutral between religions. The materials are placed out in the library os students can read them if they choose, so this program is non-coercive. The school created an open forum by allowing some of the material to be out, so consistent with many of the cases involving limited open forums that we have read in class, the school cannot prohibit speech based on the content.

Lauren Caldas said...

Going off of what both Sarah and Maddie have commented on, I believe that this is a constitutional act and not a form of establishment. The distribution of these religious materials is both non-coercive and neutral. Also, because this is an open forum it is acceptable to allow religious forms of speech. These materials are not funded by the school or being forced upon the students. Due to the fact that certain religious materials were allowed initially, they must not prohibit materials that encompass the ideals of other, minority religions. In order to maintain a neutral approach to religion and the open forum that was already created, all religious materials should be allowed as long as they do not violate other guidelines.

Richard Shin said...

I believe that when a public school decides to get involved with religion by sharing the texts of them they should either allow all religious texts to enter classroom libraries or take it to the other extreme by not allowing any religious texts to enter the school. It can be argued that by allowing religious texts into the schools there is too much government entanglement. However if the school allows all religions through the open forum policy to put their religious texts in school that is also okay and that is being religiously neutral.

Caroline S. said...

I liked what you had to say about inherently neutral policy- I think that often times people claim they want neutral policy between religion and non-religion, however when non-traditional religions get involved people jump at the opportunity to ban them because they do not align with mainstream values. If the bibles are allowed then the satanic materials in schools as well. If the school were to ban both the bible and the satanic information this would be intentionally eliminating the public forum in order to stifle the free speech of a minority religion, which is a violation of the Free Exercise clause. This reminds me of the cause of the Satanic statue, which was another blog post that we read earlier this year.