A federal appeals court has ruled that a school district in southern Missouri may not allow the distribution of Bibles on school property during the school day. However, the court also ruled that policies may be developed which would allow Bibles to be distributed during after-school hours.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry which struck down policies of the South Iron School District in Iron County, Missouri. For many years, school officials had permitted representatives of
Gideon's International to distribute Bibles to fifth grade students in the classroom during the school day.
A group of parents complained that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. They were represented by the
American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU claimed that the school was being used as a "religious recruiting ground," and that the school district "should leave religious training to parents and students."
The school district adopted a new general policy allowing the distribution of literature or materials in certain areas outside the classroom before or after the school day, before or after classes, or during lunch time. Under the policy, the Superintendent could refuse to allow dissemination of obscene, unlawful, or disruptive material, but clearly Bible distribution would have been permitted under this new policy.
Judge Perry issued a permanent injunction forbidding the "distribution of Bibles to elementary
school children on school property at any time during the school day." She concluded that both the old and new policy violated the Establishment Clause because their purpose was "the promotion of Christianity", and that their primary message was "advancing religion by conveying a message of endorsement to elementary school children."
The Appeals Court agreed with Perry and upheld the permanent injunction. However, it also suggested that a different policy for Bible distribution in school could be constitutional.
"The injunction does not address, and therefore does not categorically prohibit, others ways in which the District might, in a neutral manner, facilitate Bible distribution by private parties, such as the distribution of flyers advertising off-campus or after-school distributions."
The Appeals Court stated that the establishment of a genuine "public forum" is permissible on school property in certain circumstances, where literature could be distributed by any individual or group without discrimination. The Court pointed out that the First Amendment limits the government's authority to impose content-related restrictions on private speakers in such a public forum. The Court declared that South Iron School District officials "must remain free to experiment in good faith with new policies" to establish a proper public forum.
The reasoning of the Eighth Circuit judges is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court "equal access"
decisions. In those decisions the High Court has ruled that religious groups must have access to school district facilities so long as any non-religious group is permitted to do so, under principles of equal access.
Liberty Counsel defended the school district in the lawsuit. Matt Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel and the Dean of the Liberty University School of Law, hailed the ultimate outcome of the decision.
"We are pleased that a new equal access policy can finally go into effect. The Bible cannot be
singled out for special penalties like contraband. The Founders never envisioned open hostility toward religious viewpoints."
This entire episode illustrates once more the critical importance of adopting a religious freedom constitutional amendment in Missouri. Such an amendment would clarify the free exercise rights of Missouri citizens and schoolchildren, and correct the false information regularly being supplied to school districts by the ACLU and other anti-Christian organizations. Such legislation has been adopted by the Missouri House in two consecutive sessions, but has yet to win approval by the Missouri Senate.