- (Photo:Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
A Wisconsin university has removed the Gideon Bibles from the guest rooms of one of its conference centers after an atheist group complained that keeping them in the rooms is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
An attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the nation's largest group of atheists, agnostics and skeptics, sent a letter complaining about the Bibles to Ray Cross, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, back in November.
The books, which were in the guest rooms of The Lowell Center on the UW-Extension campus in Madison, were placed there by The Gideons International. After reviewing FFRF's concerns, however, Cross replied in a letter stating that the Bibles would be removed from all guest rooms by Dec. 1, 2013.
"We reviewed the concern raised about the placement of Bibles in our guest rooms and decided to remove them," Bill Mann, director of the Extension Conference Centers, said in a statement emailed to CP. "We want to make sure all guests are comfortable in our lodging."
A UW-Extension spokesperson says some of the Bibles are now behind the front counter and are available to guests upon request. There are 137 guest rooms in The Lowell Center, but the spokesperson could not say for sure if there had been a Bible in each of them.
"While private hotels may choose to put any type of literature they want in their guest rooms, state-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion," FFRF staff attorney Patrick Elliot said in a statement.
David Hacker, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal ministry that specializes in religious liberty cases, says the issue involving UW-Extension is a "nuanced" one. If the university allows other outside literature to be placed in guest rooms, for example, the school could actually be violating the First Amendment rights of the Gideons by engaging in viewpoint discrimination.
"If they allow other outside materials, such as phone books and magazines, in their rooms, there's no basis to remove these Bibles," said Hacker.
Regardless, the Gideons seem to be taking the university's decision in stride. Jeff Pack, a spokesperson for The Gideons International, told the Wisconsin State Journal that his organization "follows whatever direction we are given from the local authorities we work with. That's the integrity we bring to this."