ACLU warns school district about Gideon’s Bibles

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Superintendent Mitchell to seek legal counsel

By Meaghan Downs

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky or ACLU has warned the state’s school superintendents to follow federal law in allowing groups to distribute non-educational material, including religious literature, during school hours or face future litigation.
According to a press release sent by the ACLU of Kentucky last week, the group claims it has collected public records from numerous Kentucky school districts documenting that the Gideons International group distributed copies of the New Testament Bible to elementary school students during school hours.    
This is in violation of established federal law, the group said in its news release, which prohibits the favoring of one religion over another.
If school districts will approve the distribution of Bibles by Gideons International, ACLU of KY attorney William Sharp said in a Lexington Herald-Leader article on Aug. 20, then other religious groups must be afforded the same opportunity.  
“The ACLU further noted that this practice — which has been going on in some districts for decades — violates clearly established federal law, and that the organization will assess future incidents of similar conduct for potential litigation,” the ACLU of KY press release said.
Sharp sent a letter dated Aug. 19 to all school superintendents, saying the letter was not a threat, but an attempt to avoid litigation altogether.
“Contrary to others’ characterization of that notice as a ‘threat,’ it should be properly construed for what it is — an attempt to avoid litigation altogether by notifying you of this issue in advance and requesting that you ensure that your school district complies with clearly established federal law.”
Amber Duke, communications manager with the ACLU of KY, said in a phone interview Monday afternoon that the ACLU had been getting annual complaints from parents about the practice of Bibles being handed out in the classroom, and decided to investigate the practice as it affected districts statewide.  
“We’ve had success of contacting the school directly and dealing with the school or superintendent [about the practice],” Duke said, adding the frequency of the complaints led to the group requesting public records from school districts.
She said following the group’s public records investigation, ACLU of KY will follow up on future complaints if parents or community members contact the organization’s legal department.
The ACLU of KY recommended in its letter that superintendents be the only authority to grant requests for distribution of non-educational materials; require organizations to submit their requests in writing specifically describing the nature and content of materials; adopt written criteria to determine whether outside groups can or cannot actively distribute non-educational information during the school day; and that district employees are trained annually on First Amendment limitations within the school setting.
In addition, Duke said, the ACLU of KY asks that superintendents review material itself before it’s distributed to students.  
Superintendent Sheila Mitchell said via e-mail that groups such as local churches as well as Gideons International make written requests through her office, and she communicates with school administrators to indicate a request has been made and approved.
Gideons International has requested to offer materials in Anderson County schools for many years, Mitchell said.
The group usually requests to pass out material once a year in the fall, she said, and passes out Bibles just to the fifth grade classes at the district’s three elementary schools.
Mitchell said the district does not have a written policy specifically about the distribution of religious material, but that all requests to hand out fliers or other information to students must be forwarded to her office for approval.
“We have allowed them [Gideons International] to offer with student choice [the freedom for students to accept or not accept materials] since 1995 or before,” she said.
Mitchell said she received written request from the ACLU of KY, as did all school districts this summer.
 “We provided policy and procedure information as requested and discussed our procedures on the phone as well as followed up via e-mail,” Mitchell said via e-mail. “Anderson County schools has worked with the ACLU to understand the purpose of the open records request and answer any questions regarding our policies and procedures.”
Mitchell said she planned on asking for recommendations from the school district’s legal counsel, attorney Robert Chenoweth, as the district moves forward into the new school year.