LEBANON, Tenn. — A school district in Tennessee has agreed
to stop handing out Gideon Bibles to students during the school day under
threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Tennessee chapter of the ACLU wrote Wilson County school
officials in October on behalf of parents of a fifth-grade student who objected
to their daughter feeling pressured to come forward and take a Bible with
The parents, who were not identified by the ACLU, said their
daughter was brought into a school gym with other fifth graders during the
school day for a presentation by a representative of The Gideons International.
The organization is known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms and handing out
free New Testaments in various public settings around the world.
The girl’s teacher announced she would be calling students
by row to come forward and take a Bible from a basket. After returning to the
classroom the teacher instructed students to write their names in their Bible.
While the teacher told students it was not mandatory for
them to take a Bible, the ACLU said the girl did so only because she feared
being embarrassed and ostracized by her friends if she refused.
“Decisions about religion should be left in the hands of
families and faith communities, not public school officials,” said Edmund Schmidt, an
ACLU cooperating attorney. “The vital constitutional principle of religious
liberty is best protected when the government stays out of religion. Students
and their families cannot feel comfortable expressing their religious beliefs
when their teachers and administrators are imposing their own particular
In a legally binding agreement Dec.
4, school officials pledged to “immediately and forever cease promoting,
endorsing and acquiescing in the distribution of Bibles to students of Wilson
County schools on school grounds during school hours.”
“The signed agreement ensures that the school system will
not endorse one particular religious belief over another and that all students
attending Wilson County public schools will be treated fairly and have the
right to choose whether to practice their faith without school officials taking
sides,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee.
This isn’t the first time school officials in the rapidly
growing county east of Nashville have steered into rocky shoals while trying to
navigate the sometimes murky legal waters between what constitutes an
establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment versus the free
exercise of religion it guarantees.
In May the Alliance Defense Fund sued an elementary school
in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., for editing religious language out of posters drawn by
students to promote a “See You at the Pole” prayer event.
That was after a federal judge ruled
that allowing a group of parents to pray in the cafeteria and pass out fliers
to students at the same school violated the First Amendment.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated