After Satanic coloring book, atheist lawsuit creates chill on students' free speech & curriculum

by Joni B. Hannigan |

(Photo by Joni B. Hannigan/Houston)In Orange County, Florida, the school board has banned the distribution of Bibles and all religious materials -- even to those students who are interested. These types of bans which are often put into place after lawsuits by atheist organizations, can affect the academic curriculum of schools, according to Liberty Counsel senior litigation counsel Roger Gannam.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- World Changers of Florida is still on a "fact finding" mission after the Orange County School District board voted earlier this year to ban the distribution of Bibles and other religious materials.

When a Florida court in early May rejected a lawsuit by atheists against the Orange County School Board, it did not, however, affirm the board's decision to prohibit the distribution of religious materials at the school. The court simply rendered the case "moot" since distribution is not currently an issue, according to court documents.

Liberty Counsel's senior litigation counsel Roger Gannam told Christian Examiner World Changers is "disappointed" the school board took the "unnecessary step" of passing the policy he believes is unconstitutional.

The school district has been embroiled in an ongoing controversy over the distribution of Bibles to interested students by World Changers of Florida -- and in more recent years challenges by Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation to distribute a brochure calling the Bible "An X-Rated Book" and a Satanic group's coloring book of symbols and rituals.

"We think that's an unconstitutional and they could have done it another way," Gannam said. "The school board had within its power to turn away the satanic temple."

In February, the school board voted 7-1 to prohibit the distribution of any materials that are considered religious, political or sectarian, according to Gannam.

The board appeared to have confused a constitutional standard of a student's right to free speech with its wish to "not be disrupted by free speech issues," Gannam said.

"They think they have solved the problems" by avoiding materials and clubs they deem to be non-controversial. Instead, Gannam said the district may be clearly involved in "viewpoint discrimination" -- something forbidden by the constitution.

"The school board has appeased [atheists and satanists] at the expense of a free flow of ideas," Gannam said. "It is truly non American. We as World Changers and Liberty Counsel believe there should be an open forum ... or no forum at all."

Gannam agreed such treatment by school boards can lead to a "chill" on the free speech of students, and a more restrictive environment even within the classroom where academic subjects like literature and history include religious themes.

"How could it not when it's a pubic debate like this?" he asked where "all religious materials" are excluded because they create "too much controversy."

Teachers and administrators, he said, are going to think twice or three times before introducing any discussion that touches on religion, "for fear [they] might make a mistake or violate policy."

"I do think that's exactly what's happening," he said.

A perhaps unintended consequence of the increase of lawsuits over Scripture distribution and related matters can impact school curriculum -- like that of the history of world religions, he said.

In the case of Orange County, Gannam said he is unaware of any communication sent to district teachers or administrators assuring them it is appropriate "from an educational standpoint" to discuss religion.

"I know they walk on eggshells," Gannam said. "They think there are too many traps for the unwary."

All of this to Gannam points to the need for "sensible Christians" to be elected to local school boards to "keep the marketplace of ideas open" and to "protect the religious heritage" of Americans without the fear of getting fired or sued.

Gannam said Liberty Counsel continues its "fact finding" posture in regards to the Orange County School District.

"It's not a dead issue with us," Gannam said. "We are going to do our due diligence."