FAITH UNDER FIRE
Bible banishment by court overturned
Appeals judges approve policy of equal treatment for all materials
Posted: July 17, 2009
12:00 am Eastern
By Bob Unruh
© 2009 WorldNetDaily
A ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry that singled out the Bible as an "instrument of religion" and banned its distribution in a school has been overturned by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case, which has been developing for several years, concerned the activities of the South Iron School District in Missouri, which for years had allowed members of the Gideons to hand out Bibles to fifth-graders.
When the practice was challenged, the board adopted a new neutral policy requiring anyone wishing to hand out materials to submit them to the school for approval. It specifically banished materials in several categories such as commercial advertisements and documents that promote illegal actions. It also provided for an appeal process.
"Under this policy, an outside group may offer Bibles to students who wish to take them in the same manner as other nonreligious groups are permitted to distribute secular literature," explained Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mathew Staver, who argued the case before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
However, opponents of the school's policy continued their protest, and Perry issued a permanent injunction banning the distribution of Bibles in classrooms and also condemned the school's new policy.
Her decision said the neutral treatment policy toward handouts was unacceptable, because it would allow actual distribution of Bibles.
Her ruling, according to Liberty Counsel, "presented a novel (and unconstitutional) theory that a private third party (like the ACLU) must have the opportunity to veto the distribution request of the private applicant."
The veto power, the judge wrote, must be provided to veto religious, but not secular, literature, the law firm said.
Staver said the Constitution simply doesn't allow the Bible to be singled out, like contraband, for special penalties.
"How ironic that in America, until recent times, the Bible formed the basis of education, and now its mere presence is radioactive in the opinion of some judges," he said when he argued the appeal. "The founders never envisioned such open hostility toward the Christian religion as we see today in some venues. To single out the Bible alone for discriminatory treatment harkens back to the Dark Ages. America deserves better. Our Constitution should be respected, not disregarded."
But the 8th Circuit decision, which continued a ban on handing out Bibles to students in classrooms, said they could be distributed on the same basis as other handouts.
"Opening the school for expressive conduct to community and student groups serves the secular purpose of providing a forum for an exchange of ideas and social intercourse," said the opinion.
"We know of no case holding that the creation of a limited public forum was not a secular purpose satisfying [the law]," the judges continued.
The case originated in 2006 when the American Civil Liberties Union sued to stop the Gideons from handing out Bibles. Under the newest court decision, those now can be handed out – just like other materials – from several specific locations in the school.
"We are pleased that the new equal access policy can finally go into effect," said Staver. "The Founders never envisioned open hostility toward religious viewpoints."
The appeals court decision said the lower court decision would have precluded the school "from ever creating a limited public forum in which religious materials may be distributed in a constitutional neutral manner."
Instead, the ruling found, "school officials must remain free to experiment in good faith with new policies to accommodate the tensions between educational objectives … private rights under the Free Exercise Clause, and … the Establishment Clause."
Staver told WND that under the orders from the district court decision, "The Quran is OK, and other kinds of religious texts; just not the Bible. The Bible alone is impermissible in the public school."
Among the groups that have distributed material at the school are the Army Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Iron County Health Department, Missouri Water Patrol, Missouri Highland Healthcare and Union Pacific Railroad, officials said.
"The ACLU might not like the fact that equal access also means equal treatment for religious speech, but the Constitution requires equal treatment," Staver said. "The First Amendment protects private religious viewpoints. Hecklers may heckle but they may not veto private religious speech. ... Religious viewpoints have constitutional protection."
The appeals court opinion said, "The district court wholly ignored the proper initial inquiry, whether the text of the new policy evidences an unconstitutional purpose."
The Gideons, a group founded in the late 1800s, have as their "sole purpose" the goal "to win men, women, boys and girls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ through association for service, personal testimony, and distributing the Bible in the human traffic lanes and streams of everyday life."
Gideons have placed the Bible in 181 nations in 82 different languages.
The organization focuses on hotels, motels, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges, universities, the military, law enforcement, prisons and jails.
"The demand for Scriptures in these areas far exceeds our supplies that we are able to purchase through our donations," the group said. "Much more could be done – if funds were available. However, we are placing and distributing more than one million copies of the Word of God, at no cost, every seven days."
The Gideons International is the oldest Christian business and professional men's association in the U.S.