ACLU seeks end to Bible giveaway

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- An Iron County school district should be barred from allowing a Bible giveaway program to fifth-graders, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis seeks an injunction prohibiting South Iron Elementary School in Annapolis, Mo., from allowing Gideons International into the classroom to distribute the Bibles. ACLU of Eastern Missouri legal director Tony Rothert said the suit was filed on behalf of two sets of parents from the district.

School board president Jim Scaggs said he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined comment. A spokesman for Gideons International also declined comment.

For years, the school in the town of 300 residents quietly allowed the Gideons to hand out Bibles to children in the fifth grade. A year ago, concerns were raised about the practice, leading to months of discussion among school board members.

Last fall, the school board voted 4-3 to allow the Bible distribution practice to continue, even though district Superintendent Homer Lewis, at the urging of the district's insurance carrier and its attorney, had suggested the practice be dropped.

"Unfortunately, by one vote, the board has decided to thumb its nose at the Bill of Rights," Rothert said.

The district has fewer than 500 students and just two schools -- the grade school and South Iron High School, which includes grades seven through 12. The rural county sits in the heart of the nation's so-called Bible Belt and includes dozens of churches.

Lewis described the region as "rural conservative" and said most families are not opposed to the Bible giveaway. "We had one board meeting where we had a parent bring up some concerns with the board's decision after it was brought to our attention it was illegal," Lewis said.

Lewis said he will likely again ask the board to reconsider the practice. The Bibles were given to children in October, and another giveaway isn't expected until the 2006-2007 school year, he said.

Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn., distributes more than 63 million Bibles worldwide each year, according to the organization's Web site.

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