A Kansas public elementary school is ending the free distribution of Bibles to students after complaints that the practice violates the constitutional separation of church and state, the school superintendent said Tuesday.
“Our district respects all religious beliefs and the constitutional rights of every student,” said Herington school Superintendent Ron Wilson. “We will no longer allow distribution of religious materials.”
The legal arm of the American Humanist Association demanded an end to the Bible giveaway at Herington Elementary School after receiving complaints from parents who have children there, according to a letter to the school district.
“The district’s actions in assisting the Gideons in distributing Bibles to elementary students represents a clear breach of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and we hereby demand assurances that this practice will discontinue immediately,” said the letter by Monica L. Miller, a lawyer with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
The Gideons is an evangelical Christian organization best known for distributing free Bibles in hotel rooms and schools, and to countries overseas.
The Appignani Center’s letter listed a long line of court cases limiting religion in public schools and threatened litigation if the Bible distribution in Herington didn’t stop.
Herrington’s Bible giveaway took place about two weeks ago, shortly before students left for their winter break, Wilson said. A table was placed in a hallway at the school with a sign inviting fifth graders to help themselves to a free Bible.
“In no way were we trying to impose anything on anyone,” Wilson said.
The distribution probably did violate court rulings on religion in schools, said Jeff Jackson, a professor of constitutional law at Washburn University in Topeka.
Years ago, the Gideons and/or public school teachers routinely handed out Bibles and/or miniature New Testaments directly to students in the classroom, Jackson said.
That has long since been ruled unconstitutional, he said.
Bible distribution tables outside classrooms are legal in junior highs and high schools, but only if any group that wants to distribute its literature to students is allowed to do the same, he said.
But it’s not allowable in elementary schools, because courts have ruled that “elementary students are especially open to coercion,” Jackson said. “Because of their age, they’re particularly impressionable.”
Wilson, in his first year as Herington’s superintendent, said the one-day Bible giveaway has been a yearly tradition at the school for a number of years, although he doesn’t know exactly when it started.
After getting a complaint from a parent, “I visited with the the principal immediately and we decided at that time, going forward, we would change what had been done in the past,” Wilson said.