Most parents would object to adult strangers coming into their children's school grounds to give something to their children. But what if that “something” is a Bible?
Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent a letter to the superintendent of DeSoto public schools in Mississippi to demand that the school district stop allowing the Gideons, probably best known for leaving Bibles in hotel rooms, to pass out Bibles in public schools. At the heart of the matter is a debate about how religion is perceived and what constitutes an acceptable expression of speech.
FFRF not only claims that Gideon International is wrongfully targeting children without parental permission, it also accuses the Gideons of being “religious predators,” preying on unsuspecting youth.
The Gideons, however, say they are just passing out a good book to kids.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-founder of FFRF, accuses the Gideons of proselytizing to children without parental permission and violating laws that create a separation between church and state. Her argument is not anti-religious, she insists, rather it is a manner of protecting children, protecting laws, and speaking out for others who are afraid to do so.
“Letting strangers onto school property to solicit is wrong,” Gaylor told CP. “It is common sense that you can’t let religious societies onto school grounds...you can’t use the schools to missionize.”
Gaylor also says that her organization has heard complaints of Gideons throwing Bibles onto school buses, which could cause physical harm, as well as enticing children to run across the street to get “something for free,” which puts children at risk of getting hit by a car.
The overstepping of boundaries, physical and legal, Gaylor says, was the result of the Gideons’ extreme “sense of entitlement.”
“They should just pick on people their own size,” she said.
When asked what she would say to Christian parents who would have no problem with an extra Bible in their child’s backpack, Gaylor said that “they should.”
“Imagine if your kid came home from school with a Quran and said imams came to his or her school and gave them out,” Gaylor said. “They’d be livid...Children are a captive audience and religion should be the parent’s role – not a stranger’s.”
Gideon International said that they never try to press Bibles on children under 10 years old, nor have they deliberately put children in physical danger by throwing Bibles or enticing children to cross busy streets.
However, Gideon International does acknowledge that they go into school with the permission of school administrators – one of the main aspects of FFRF’s complaint to the DeSoto school district, which says that the Gideons “are in cahoots” with school administrators to proselytize.
Rejecting the term “in cahoots,” Gideon International spokesman Ken Stephens told CP that going into schools with administration permission has occurred. However, “proselytizing” is simply not their goal.
“The Gideons are not a church,” Stephens said. “We’re not trying to get anybody to join anything. We’re just putting an important message into people’s hands.”
When asked if he thought the Gideons were overstepping parental boundaries by encouraging their children to read a book for which they had not necessarily given permission, Stephens said that the minimum grade level of children to whom they give Bibles is fifth grade, which allows for an acceptable reading level and critical thinking skills that should allow the children to think for themselves.
“If you’re encouraging a child to read a passage, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Stephens said.
"I'm for the Gideons," Janice Howlett, a parent of a Desoto school district student, told WMCTV. "I believe in all kinds of people going on to the campus handing out different things. They're not forcing people to take them. They're giving them out, and if you want it, you take it, and if you don't, you don't."
However, Gaylor said her organization is not pressing DeSoto schools simply to push their secular agenda. Rather, they have received several complaints from parents in the area but were afraid to speak out for fear of their neighbors perceiving them as anti-Christian.
"There’s a lot of support in the area but some people just can’t speak out," she said. “We have heard from a lot of people who thanked us for doing this.”