A concerned parent informed FFRF that on Oct. 20, members of Gideons International were passing out New Testaments to all students of reading age outside of Fennville Elementary School in Fennville, Mich., while they waited to be picked up after school. This distribution reportedly took place on school property, just 20 feet from the school door.
It is unconstitutional for public school districts to permit Gideons International to distribute bibles as part of the public school day on school property, FFRF informed Fennville Public Schools.
“Courts have uniformly held that the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during the school day is prohibited,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Fennville Public Schools Superintendent Jim Greydanus. “In striking down a school district’s policy permitting Gideons to distribute bibles in classrooms, the 7th Circuit stated, ‘the Gideon Bible is unabashedly Christian. In permitting distribution of ‘The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ along with limited excerpts from the Old Testament, the schools affront not only nonreligious people but all those whose faiths, or lack of faith, does not encompass the New Testament.’”
The Gideons International is self-described as an interdenominational association of Christian business and professional men who are members of Protestant/evangelical churches. (The organization doesn’t allow women to be full-fledged members.) Its website states that it is “dedicated to telling people about Jesus through sharing personally and by providing bibles and New Testaments.” The Gideon website openly refers to public schools as a prime target.
Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion and to protect the rights of conscience of young and impressionable students, FFRF contended. In allowing Gideons to distribute bibles to elementary school students, the district was impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its “stamp of approval” on the religious messages contained in the bible.
In contacting the superintendent, FFRF noted he may have had no prior knowledge of the bible distribution. Gideons often operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards, advising their members to seek permission at the lowest level of authority.
The superintendent confirmed FFRF’s suspicions and informed it that this sort of incident would not recur.
“I have investigated the incident and have found that there was indeed a violation of district policies by those responsible for the distribution,” Greydanus wrote back. “Those responsible did not seek, nor receive, my permission to distribute materials on campus as required by policy.”
FFRF is glad to be of assistance and appreciates the superintendent’s assurances.
“We have taken complaints over aggressive Gideon tactics for four decades,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “ We teach our children not to accept gifts from strangers. Then there are these grown men preying on a captive audience of young students. The Gideons should be ashamed of themselves.”