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District defends Bible distribution

HARRIET HAMILTONsummit daily news

Legal understandingThe recently released statement by the school district attempted to clarify its legal rationale for allowing in the Gideons: “The District believes that its policies are consistent with the current interpretation by the Supreme Court regarding those rights which are guaranteed to individuals under the First Amendment. The District is under a legal obligation to not endorse any religion, while allowing the free expression of opinion, provided that such free-expression does not interfere with the District’s educational mission.”SUMMIT COUNTY – In the face of criticism about distribution of free Bibles in the middle and high schools, the Summit School District recently issued a statement to clarify its position – and said it was open for change.On May 11, the district gave permission for Gideons International, a men’s Christian group, to set up tables inside the two Summit County schools and offer free New Testaments to students as they walked by. According to the Gideons, approximately 330 volumes were distributed in the middle school, and 130 in the high school.Parents had not been informed in advance of the Bible giveaway, and several showed up at the May 24 Board of Education meeting to express their feelings about the board’s decision.”I’m personally uncomfortable with distribution of Bibles on school grounds,” parent Heidi Dickstein told the board. “I question whether a group of Islamicists would have been granted similar access.”In its statement, the school district explained that if other groups such as college recruiters and the Rotary Club are allowed to distribute brochures and dictionaries inside the schools, no legal grounds exist to prohibit Bible giveaways. Under the district’s official policy, the only types of materials deemed unacceptable for distribution are those that espouse hate, promote violence, have a commercial intent, are libelous, promote a political position or are judged obscene by community standards.School superintendent Millie Hamner said the policy recognizes that community groups may have information that may be useful or beneficial to students, even if the district or the individual school does not endorse the information.”Our district could prohibit the distribution of any and all materials by outside groups, but we have chosen to open our schools to our community,” she said.At the same time, Hamner said the district would consider a reversal in the policy, with enough community feedback. “If our community would rather close our schools to our community neighbors, the Board of Education could consider that sort of change,” she said. She went on to say such a change would involve prohibiting distribution of materials from groups such as the Girl Scouts, the Optimists, private soccer clubs, college recruiters and the Rotary Club.The district’s legal explanation, which insists its policies are consistent with the current interpretation by the Supreme Court, failed to convince some community members.”I cannot believe any attorney gave the school board this direction,” Breckenridge resident Janet Sutterley, a member of the Unitarian Church, said. “How can you liken Bibles to dictionaries and college recruiters? It’s not an apples to apples comparison.”Sutterley also questioned the methods the Gideons employed at the schools.”I heard from a couple of other people who were there that they were getting up and approaching kids,” she said.Frisco resident Mary Faber expressed similar concerns about the distribution at the middle school.”I was surprised when my daughter came home from school with a copy of the New Testament,” she said. Faber questioned her daughter about where she got the book and her daughter said someone at school had given it to her.”My daughter is a special needs child, and therefore I thought she’d misunderstood what I was asking her, so I didn’t follow up,” Faber said.Faber emphasized her objections to the Gideons are not theological.”Although we are a Christian family and have many Bibles in our household, I believe strongly that a child’s religious education is the responsibility and choice of their parents and not that of the public school system,” she said.A problem of poor communicationSeveral parents cited lack of communication about the Bible distribution between the school board and the community as a problem.”Having just spent that week being informed three times about the new schedule, I was impressed with the communication to parents,” Sutterley said. Until, that is, she heard about the Bibles.”Then I thought, ‘Whoa, nobody said anything about that!'” she said.The Gideons also distributed New Testaments last spring and, although the district received complaints, no advanced notice was given to parents this May.”It strikes me as odd that if they realized this was a point of contention last year, they didn’t bring this to parents this year,” Dickstein said.The future of the district’s current policy remains unclear. At the May 24 meeting several school board members expressed interest in getting more information about the controversy. According to Dickstein and Greenhut, both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are following up on community complaints.Summit County is just one school district facing questions about the role of religion in public schools. The school board in rural Brunswick County, N.C., recently tabled its discussion about Gideon Bible distribution because it was becoming such a source of contention in the community. Harriet Hamilton can be reached at (970) 668-4628, or at hhamilton@summitdaily.com


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