ACLU Says School District's Bible Distribution Steps Onto 'Shaky Constitutional Ground'

The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to stop the distribution of New Testament Bibles to fifth graders at a school district in South Dakota, arguing that such a distribution is stepping onto "shaky constitutional ground."

The ACLU of South Dakota sent a letter to Miller School District, urging the district to reverse its recent decision to allow The Gideons International to distribute pocket-sized New Testament Bibles to fifth graders in their district. District officials voted unanimously to allow the evangelical group's distribution last week, and the ACLU submitted its letter this week.

"Under the Constitution schools cannot intentionally, or unintentionally, advance religion or become too entangled with religious groups," reads the letter. "The courts have repeatedly said that schools must also avoid favoring or appearing to favor a religious view, and they may not create any situation in which students feel coerced to participate in religion."

The ACLU also argues that the distribution of Bibles on school grounds can pose a bullying threat to students belonging to minority religions who choose not to take a Bible. "For the last few years, we have become increasingly aware of the devastating effects that bullying has, especially on children who are isolated from their peers because of real or perceived differences, in this case whether or not they accept a Bible."

The district's board president, David Fremark, told the Associated Press on Monday that he had not received the ACLU's letter and therefore refused to comment.

It remains unclear how The Gideons International would distribute the Bibles to students, but in the past, the evangelical group has held passive book distributions, where the group sets up an unmanned table displaying Bibles on campus that students can peruse if they wish. School districts usually prevent representatives of The Gideons International from being on campus during school hours, and the table is only allowed to be set up and dismantled when school is not in session.

The ACLU previously contested the distribution of Bibles at 174 public schools in Kentucky. In 2013, the group sent multiple letters to the school districts, threatening lawsuits if the schools continue to allow the distribution of Bibles.

In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sent its own letter to the school districts, disagreeing with the ACLU's claims that the Bible distribution was unconstitutional. "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," the letter read.

"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."

The Gideons International again distributed Bibles at a public elementary school in Kentucky earlier this year. In response, the Tri-State Freethinkers group also requested permission to distribute atheist literature on campus. Their request was granted, causing some parents to pull their children from school on the days the atheist literature display table was present.