ACLU warns Kentucky schools to follow rules regarding Bible distribution

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 20, 2013 

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union warned Kentucky school districts Tuesday that they'll face a court challenge if they don't start following federal guidelines on distributing Bibles to students.

A letter dated Aug. 19 from ACLU staff attorney William Sharp said that despite past warnings, Bibles had been handed out by Gideons International in several elementary schools as recently as last year.

"Kentucky's public school officials have, at best, suffered from inconsistent adherence to clearly established First Amendment limits upon government endorsement of religion in the classroom," Sharp wrote.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Sharp said the intent was to stay out of court by encouraging districts to follow federal guidelines on the issue.

"Our previous attempts did not have the desired effect, so we decided to put the applicable law in writing and send it to all the superintendents," he said.

The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits government entities from favoring one religion over another; therefore, public school educators who want to allow Bible distribution would also have to allow other religious groups to hand out their literature, such as Muslims handing out Qurans, Sharp said.

Instead, the ACLU noted, individual teachers or principals sometimes allow a group such as Gideons to enter classrooms and hand out Bibles without giving that opportunity to other groups.

Earlier this year, the ACLU sent a request under the state's Open Records Act to every district in the state asking for each district's policies and paperwork regarding outside groups who speak or distribute materials to students.

The group found that 115 school districts don't have written policies about outside organizations coming to school during school hours and lack explicit criteria about distribution of materials.

The ACLU made several recommendations to districts, including making the superintendent the only official authorized to allow outside groups to distribute materials, and requiring those organizations to make requests to distribute materials in writing.

The Kentucky School Boards Association also released a series of recommendations. The association noted that it is possible for a district to prohibit all outside groups from distributing materials, but such a move might be impractical because it would affect a wide variety of groups, including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and sports clubs.

"Districts and school officials cannot engage in 'viewpoint discrimination,' in determining which materials to allow or prohibit," the association said. "In general, this refers to restricting the distribution of materials simply because the subject matter is unpopular or controversial; because it expresses a particular social, political, or religious message; or simply because school officials disagree with the message."

ACLU Executive Director Michael Aldridge said an investigation by the group found that Gideons International had "exploited district's lack of a centralized decision-maker for these types of requests by specifically instructing its members to seek approval for their in-school Bible distribution efforts at the lowest level of authority."

Jeff Pack, a spokesman for Gideons International in Nashville, said the group's policy is to approach individual school boards and "follow whatever direction they give us. We always go through the school board."

Logan County Superintendent Marshall Kemp said his district has allowed Gideons to hand out Bibles in the past, "but we probably won't in the future.

"Schools are not supposed to support one religion over another and I understand that, but in the past it was a resource for students who wanted them," he said.

No other religious group has ever requested permission to pass out materials, Kemp said, "but if we allowed one, we would have to allow others."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359 Twitter: @lbblackford

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