Gideons ask local students:’Would you like a free Bible?’
SUMMIT COUNTY – Questions about the separation of church and state surfaced this month in Summit County when members of Gideons International were allowed to set up tables offering free Bibles in the middle school and high school.For the second consecutive year, the Christian men’s group distributed the religious text inside the school buildings to interested students.On May 11, six Gideon members set up three tables at various school entrances stacked with small orange volumes consisting of the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs. Bibles were offered to middle school students before the start of classes – from 7:30 until 8 a.m. – and to the high school students from 2:20 until a little after 3 p.m.”A sign on the tables said ‘Free Bibles’ and we asked the kids, ‘Would you like a free Bible?'” Gideon spokesman Bill Kirkhoff said.According to Kirkhoff, the Summit Camp of the Gideons has been distributing Bibles to Summit County schoolchildren for 12 years. For the first 10 of those years, Gideon members stood outside, off school property, to hand out the books. Last year, however, the decision was made by the school district to allow the group inside the schools.This decision was not made lightly, Summit school superintendent Millie Hamner said. Attorneys for the district gave their legal opinion that if the Gideons were excluded, all other outside groups must be excluded as well. The school district interpreted this to mean that, if the Rotarians are allowed to distribute dictionaries and college recruiters are allowed to hand out materials, then the Gideons have the right to distribute Bibles, Hamner said. A ‘blessing’ or a ‘fault'”We think it’s just a total blessing that we’re able to hand out the word of God, being that our country was founded on it,” Kirkhoff said.The move off the street and into the schools has greatly increased the number of Bibles taken, Kirkhoff added. Before his group was allowed inside, they generally gave out about 100 volumes at the middle school and 10 at the high school. This year, he estimated 330 middle school students and 130 students at the high school took a Bible.
“From year to year it seems to grow with a more positive spirit,” he said. “I think the parents are really happy we’re out there making a stand for the moral fiber of our country.”The school district’s decision to allow the Bible distribution doesn’t sit well with all members of the High Country community.”I can’t find fault with the Gideons for doing what they believe,” Heidi Dickstein, president of the Synagogue of the Summit, said. “I do find fault with our school board for allowing it to happen.” Dickstein said she believes an allowance was made for the Gideons because most county residents identify themselves as Christian.”Would they feel the same way if it were not the predominant religion?” she asked. “What if a group of Muslims asked to come into the schools and distribute the Koran?”Dickstein also took exception to the suggestion that any specific religion is central to the foundation of U.S. society.”I think that whoever says that this country is founded on Christian principles misses the point that it’s founded on the separation of church and state,” she said. “That’s why people came to this country to start with. For freedom – particularly religious freedom.”School district policyThe school district policy, described by the attorneys as “a limited open forum” policy, specifically allows distribution of “non-curricular materials’ by students, staff and the general public as long as the materials meet policy requirements. Under these requirements, all obscene, violent, libelous, hateful and commercial materials are prohibited.The district received only one complaint this year about the Bible distribution, Hamner said. Last year, an unknown individual felt strongly enough about the issue to bring it to the attention of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works to defend its interpretation of the First Amendment.
A letter was sent to the district by AU last September addressing the presence of the Gideons in Summit schools. The response to AU by school district attorneys cited several federal court decisions and concluded: “under established case law, the District cannot single out and ban religious materials from being distributed in its limited open forums.”AU spokesman Rob Boston disagreed with the district’s attorneys.”Our attorney’s looked at the response and they’re not persuaded by it,” he said. “I think that’s a misinterpretation of what the courts have said in this matter.”According to Boston, many U.S. school districts prohibit distribution of religious materials but still let other types of groups into the schools.”I’ve not heard that allowing a college recruiter opens the door to do this,” he said.Boston stressed that his organization is not anti-religious, but is instead “multi-faith.” In fact, its executive director is a minister, he added. The mission of the group is not to discourage religion, but to keep it apart from governmental institutions.”Our organization believes public education should not be in the business of supporting religious work and religious texts,” he said. “If parents want their children to read the Bible, they can give it to them at home.”Boston was specific in his objection to giving the Gideons access to schoolchildren.”The Gideons do not have a secular, educational reason for being in the school,” he said. “Public schools should not be meddling in the religious lives of students.”Boston said the AU plans to address the Summit School District situation later this summer.
Many school districts around the country already prohibit Bible distribution on school property. The Gideons’ Kirkhoff acknowledged that it’s not always easy to convince a district to let his group in, but he defended the low-key approach the Gideons take.”We know that we get some flack, but we’re not forcing this on anyone,” he said.Although she has no criticism of the Gideons themselves, Dickstein expressed her opinion of the district’s legal position.”Comparing it to handing out dictionaries – I see no connection at all,’ she said. “To me, this is a no-brainer.”Who the Gideons areMost people know the Gideons as distributors of Bibles found in hotel rooms, but very little else about the organization. According to its website, Gideons International, founded in 1899, is the oldest Christian business and professional men’s association in the U.S. The Tennessee-based nonprofit group claims more than 250,000 members in 181 countries.In addition to hotels, Gideons distribute Bibles and New Testaments to hospitals, prisons, schoolchildren, military personnel and nurses around the world. While not affiliated with any particular Christian denomination, the mission of the group as stated in the Bibles received by Summit students is very specific.”The purpose of the Association is the promotion of the Gospel of Christ to all people, to the end that they might come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour,” it reads.
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