Judge orders halt to distribution of Bibles in Mo. public school

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A rural Missouri school district's long-standing practice of allowing the distribution of Bibles to grade school students is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.

An attorney for the school district said Wednesday he will appeal.

For more than three decades, the South Iron School District in Annapolis, 120 miles southwest of St. Louis, allowed representatives of Gideons International to give away Bibles in fifth-grade classrooms.

After some parents raised concerns and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit two years ago, the district altered its policy -- the Gideons and others were still welcome to distribute Bibles or other literature before or after school or during lunch break, but not in the classroom.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry on Tuesday granted a permanent injunction, ruling both practices were illegal. The district court had previously granted a temporary injunction against the classroom distribution, a ruling upheld in August by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The purpose of both practices "is the promotion of Christianity by distributing Bibles to elementary school students," Perry wrote. "The policy has the principle or primary effect of advancing religion by conveying a message of endorsement to elementary school children."

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based law group that represented the school district, disagreed.

"I think the current policy creates an open forum that allows secular as well as religious persons or groups to access the forum to distribute information," Staver said. "The court has clearly misread the First Amendment and the cases regarding free speech."

The ACLU lauded the decision.

"The court recognized that public schools cannot become religious recruiting grounds," said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.

Concerns were first raised in 2005. The school board voted 4-3 to continue the classroom distribution practice over the objection of then-Superintendent Homer Lewis. He resigned a short time later.

A day after the vote, the Gideons came to the school and distributed Bibles to both fifth-grade classrooms.

The ACLU filed suit the next year on behalf of four sets of parents. Rothert noted that all of the parents are Christian but believe religious beliefs should be taught in the home, not school.

The South Iron district has about 500 students and just two schools -- the grade school and South Iron High School -- and sits in the heart of the nation's so-called Bible Belt. Superintendent Brad Crocker was out of the office Wednesday and did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn., distributes Bibles in more than 80 languages and 180 countries, according to the organization's Web site. A spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

On the Net:

ACLU of Eastern Missouri: www.aclu-em.org

Gideons International: http://www.gideons.org

Liberty Counsel: www.lc.org

South Iron School District: http://schoolweb.missouri.edu/southiron....

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