Oklahoma school says 'no' to free Bibles

by Will Hall, |

DUNCAN, Okla. (Christian Examiner) – Officials for Duncan Public Schools in Duncan, Oklahoma, have instructed teachers not to distribute Bibles or other religious material during classes, after a parent complained about a teacher's offer of free New Testaments for students who wanted one.

The controversy erupted in Woodrow Wilson Elementary School after a third grade teacher told students she had Bibles at her desk and invited students to take a copy, April 2. Gideons International provides these pocket-sized Bibles for schools, hospitals and military units and distributes them also in various "designated traffic lanes of life," according to their website.

The Duncan Banner, a local newspaper, reported many of Erica Mackey's students came forward.

But not all of them were happy about her offer.

According to a letter by the legal arm of the American Humanist Association, one parent complained that because so many students went forward her child "felt peer-pressured and coerced to do the same thing." Furthermore, the atheist group asserted that "distributing Bibles to elementary students represents a clear breach of the [First Amendment] Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution" and demanded no more Bibles be handed out.

According to a response to AHA by the school's legal counsel Scott Stone, the school district has informed teachers not to distribute religious materials during class or encourage or discourage any particular religious beliefs during the performance of their duties as a school employee.

Stone also said the district would not allow religious materials to be handed out to elementary students, but that it reserved the right to permit such activity among secondary students as long as it was not coerced.

In similar cases, Christian legal groups life Alliance Defending Freedom have offered something of a different view about the constitutionality of allowing religious materials in schools than what is articulated by groups like AHA and the ACLU. But, the ADF does acknowledge some restrictions.

"Controlling Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent permits school districts to allow community groups, like the Gideons, to make Bibles and other religious materials available to students on tables in the hallways or school lobby pursuant to a neutral forum established for private speech," the group explained in a 2013 letter sent to all school superintendents in Kentucky. "Indeed, excluding religious community groups from such a forum would clearly violate the First Amendment."

Likewise, neutral organizations like the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University say religious literature may be distributed, but other materials must be allowed as well.

In a guide it provides to public schools, the FAC cites the U.S. Department of Education:

"Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities. Schools may impose the same reasonable time, place, and manner or other constitutional restrictions on distribution of religious literature as they do on non-school literature generally, but they may not single out religious literature for special regulation."

For her part, Mackey has not commented publicly about the matter.

School officials have not said whether she will be disciplined about the incident, but they promised to fully investigate the situation.