SOUIX FALLS, S.D. — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Dakota is urging a local school district to rescind its approval of a Bible distribution to fifth graders.
The Miller School District voted unanimously last week to allow Gideon International to distribute pocket New Testaments to students in the area. However, the ACLU asserts that the distribution is unconstitutional. It sent a letter to district officials on Monday to request that the vote be reconsidered and overturned.
“Under the Constitution, schools cannot intentionally, or unintentionally, advance religion or become too entangled with religious groups,” it wrote.
“The courts have repeatedly said that schools must also avoid favoring or appearing to favor a religious view, and they may not create any situation in which students feel coerced to participate in religion,” the ACLU continued in its correspondence. “These constitutional protections ensure that students can find and follow their own faith with the guidance of their family and religious leaders, free from government intrusion.”
“The distribution of religious materials to fifth grade students is deeply concerning, especially for students of minority religions who choose not to receive a Bible,” Executive Director Heather Smith, also commented in a press release about the matter. “For the last few years, we have become increasingly aware of the devastating effects that bullying has, especially on children who are isolated from their peers because of real or perceived differences, in this case whether or not they accept a Bible.”
It is not known whether the district plans to respond to the letter or acknowledge the ACLU in any way.
As previously reported, a Christian legal group fought the ACLU last year when it likewise attempted to end Bible distribution efforts in public schools.
William Sharp of the ACLU had sent a three-page letter to 174 Kentucky school districts in April 2013 to address an alleged “widespread and persistent practice in Kentucky’s public elementary schools” of permitting the distribution of Gideons Bibles to students. Sharps stated that some parents had expressed opposition to Gideons International’s efforts, which have been sanctioned for a number of years by school officials.
However, the national Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) disagreed with the ACLU’s contention that Gideon International’s practices are unlawful, and sent a counter letter to the same school districts throughout Kentucky.
“[B]anning only religious community groups from distributing literature at public schools is clearly forbidden by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment,” it wrote.
“Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas,” said ADF staff counsel Rory Gray. “That’s why the schools frequently allow a wide array of groups to distribute literature of various sorts to students. Singling out the Gideons while allowing other groups to distribute literature would be clearly unconstitutional.”