- (Photo: Reuters/Kieran Dohery)
The American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to school districts in Kentucky, once again threatening legal action if they continue to allow the distribution of bibles to students through the group The Gideons International.
The letter, sent by the state's ACLU staff attorney, William Sharp, on Aug. 19, warns legal action against the school districts for allowing The Gideons International, an evangelical group, to distribute bibles on campus to students. The ACLU argues that the state's school districts do not possess a uniform code regarding off-campus organizations, and therefore some teachers and principals have allowed The Gideons International into classrooms to hand out bibles, when other organizations haven't been given that opportunity.
"The Kentucky's public school officials have, at best, suffered from inconsistent adherence to clearly established First Amendment limits upon government endorsement of religion in the classroom," read the letter issued to the public schools Monday.
The ACLU issued a similar letter to the state's public schools in April, along with an Open Records Act request, seeking to retrieve each school district's policies regarding off-campus organizations interacting with students. The records reportedly showed that 115 schools do not have specific policies regarding distribution of materials to students during schools hours.
The letter sent by the ACLU in April argued that the practice of distributing bibles to students "violates both federal and state constitutional guarantees barring governmental endorsement of religion, and it also impermissibly encroaches upon parents' prerogative to direct the religious upbringing of their children. "
Following the April letter, Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit group, issued a counter letter to the same school districts in Kentucky arguing that the ACLU's claim that The Gideons International practices are unconstitutional is false.
"We write to correct several misrepresentations made in the ACLU's letter and to inform you that allowing religious community groups, like the Gideons, to distribute literature at tables in the school hallways or by the entrances and exits on an equal basis with their secular counterparts fully complies with the Establishment Clause," wrote the ADF attorneys in July.
The attorneys go on to argue that if schools were to ban the distribution of bibles, yet allow other secular groups to continue distributing materials on campus, they would be violating the First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. "Indeed, banning only religious community groups from distributing literature at public schools is clearly forbidden by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment."
"Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas," ADF staff counsel Rory Gray added to the Christian News Network at the time. "That's why the schools frequently allow a wide array of groups to distribute literature of various sorts to students. Singling out the Gideons while allowing other groups to distribute literature would be clearly unconstitutional."
The ACLU has previously threatened lawsuits to other state school districts for allowing The Gideons International to distribute material on school campuses. The legal group has argued that the distribution of The Gideons International materials in Missouri and Tennessee is also unconstitutional.
In Tennessee, the ACLU reached a settlement with the White County school district, agreeing that The Gideons International could no longer distribute bibles in fifth grade classrooms but could distribute the materials, along with secular materials, as part of a forum. In Missouri, the ACLU claims that a district court found the distribution of bibles in the classrooms was unconstitutional.