CNHI News Service
The American Civil Liberties Union is putting Kentucky school districts on notice that it will take them to court if they do not adopt policies limiting the distribution of religious materials to students at school.
The Kentucky chapter of the ACLU has sent letters to every public school superintendent in the state outlining its investigation of Bible distributions to students at a number of elementary schools by the Gideons International. Based on open records requests, the legal organization found that the Gideons had been giving the Bibles to students for years in some schools and that few districts had policies governing the distribution of materials by outside organizations during school hours.
For several years the Kentucky ACLU has investigated reports from parents that schools were giving Bibles to students during school hours, spokeswoman Amber Duke said. “We had been going on a case by case basis by contacting the districts and sending letters outlining the law and constitutional issues,” she said.
The ACLU contends that allowing the Bible giveaways violates the First Amendment, which prohibits establishment of religion or the favoring of one religion over another.
One of the complaints was from a parent of a child in Worthington Elementary School in the Raceland-Worthington district, Duke said. The parent contacted the ACLU in November 2012, saying representatives of the Gideons were allowed in the classroom to give out Bibles.
“It had been a tradition. Whether it was right or wrong it had been allowed to go on for years in our school system,” Superintendent Larry Coldiron said.
Widespread lack of district policies governing such distribution left the door open for violations, according to the organization. Based on its open records requests, the ACLU contends the Gideons “intentionally exploited districts’ lack of a centralized decision-maker for these types of requests by specifically instructing its members to seek approval for their in-school Bible distribution efforts ‘at the lowest level of authority and progress higher only as may be required.’”
The ACLU also said the Gideons discouraged members from seeking school-board approval “because of the potential for unfavorable publicity by the news media.”
The case-by-case approach had been mostly successful and schools typically made policy changes, Duke said.
In the Worthington Elementary case, Coldiron banned the distribution to students of religious materials by the Gideons or any other outside party on school grounds during school.
“We respect parents’ wishes on the distribution of that type of material. Whether we agree with it or not, we have to follow the law,” Coldiron said. “We have to take our own personal beliefs out of it.”
However, the organization concluded other schools were not sufficiently deterred from continuing the practice.
Starting with the current school year, further complaints about such practices may result in litigation, according to the letter.
The ACLU listed four recommendations it said could ward off lawsuits. They include designating superintendents as the only officials authorized to grant permission to distribute literature, requiring organizations to ask permission in writing, adopt standards for deciding whether outside organizations may distribute materials during school and training employees annually on pertinent First Amendment issues.
Whether to follow the recommendations or not is a strictly local issue, said Kentucky School Boards Association spokesman Brad Hughes. “We’re probably not going to act on these recommendations. We’re not going to suggest anything or pursue it any further,” he said.
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