‘No court has provided a private right of veto over private religious speech’
A brief has been filed in a federal appeals court asking the justices to overturn a judge who ordered a school district specifically to ban the Bible in its policy regarding the distribution of literature to students.
Now comes another dispute, this one in Missouri and pursued by Liberty Counsel in its request to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. It wants the court to overturn a district judge’s ruling that could be used to allow distribution of the Quran, but specifically censors the Bible under the district’s open forum policy that is content-neutral.
The case comes out of a policy adopted by the school board in the South Iron School District in Iron County, Mo. The district has had a long-standing open access policy “that allows many community groups to present literature and information to students at its schools, outside the classroom during non-instructional time.” In fact, officials noted, no one requesting permission ever had been refused.
Among the “diverse” groups that have participated are the Army Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Iron County Health Department, Missouri Water Patrol, Missouri Highland Healthcare and Union Pacific Railroad, officials said.
However, a recent distribution of Bibles by the Gideons supported by a local association of ministers prompted outrage from members of the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed a lawsuit seeking to censor the Bible.
School board members put into writing their open forum policy, specifically allowing material on a content-neutral basis unless the material fell into specific categories, such as pornography or advocacy of illegal activities.
Then U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ordered the school to prohibit distribution of Bibles specifically, because she said they are an “instrument of religion.”
Her ruling “presented a novel (and unconstitutional) theory that a private third party (like the ACLU) must have the opportunity to veto the distribution request of the private applicant,” said Liberty Counsel. “The veto power, the judge wrote, must be provided to veto religious, but not secular, literature.”
The school policy treats religious literature the same as secular literature as required by Supreme Court precedents, the law firm said.
“But Judge Perry ruled that religious literature, particularly the Bible, may not be treated the same. If a private third party, like the ACLU, cannot veto the request before the distribution, then, she ruled, the policy must be stricken. No court in the country has provided a private right of veto over private religious speech,” Liberty Counsel said.
“The ACLU might not like the fact that equal access also means equal treatment for religious speech, but the Constitution requires equal treatment. The First Amendment protects private religious viewpoints. Hecklers may heckle but they may not veto private religious speech. The Bible is not radioactive. Religious viewpoints have Constitutional protection,” said Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel.
Liberty Counsel said the documentation in the case simply confirms that school board members assumed throughout their discussions about the Bible distribution that they already had an open forum for distribution of any materials; they just didn’t have a written policy, which they soon adopted.
The minutes from board meetings noted the board president “explained to the board at this point, we are an open forum and any group can request to enter our school and distribute materials – atheists, communists, gay rights, etc.” The minutes note the board members acknowledged that.
However, Perry banned the district “from distributing or allowing distribution of Bibles to elementary school children on school property at any time during the school day.”
“The district court also opined that ‘Bibles are different’ from other forms of religious literature,” Liberty Counsel said.
In fact, the advocacy law firm said, the judge’s ruling “has the troubling effect of permitting the distribution of certain religious texts, such as the Quran or the I Ching, while censoring only one, the Bible. Such a result is hardly consistent with our constitutional scheme.
The Gideons, a group founded in the late 1800s, has as its “sole purpose” the goal “to win men, women, boys and girls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ through association for service, personal testimony, and distributing the Bible in the human traffic lanes and streams of everyday life.”
Gideons have placed the Bible in 181 nations in 82 different languages over the years.
The organization focuses on hotels and motels, hospitals and nursing homes, schools, colleges and universities, the military and law enforcement and prisons and jails.
“The demand for Scriptures in these areas far exceeds our supplies that we are able to purchase through our donations. Much more could be done – if funds were available. However, we are placing and distributing more than one million copies of the Word of God, at no cost, every seven days in these areas…” the group said.
The organization only gives away the Bibles with the Gideon logo on the covers, but plain Bibles are available for consumers to purchase at its distribution center at P.O. Box 140800, Nashville, Tenn., 37214-0800. Information about the products is available on the group’s website.
The Gideons serve as an extended missionary arm of the Christian church and are the oldest Christian business and professional men’s association in the United States.