Court Upholds Ind. District's Bible-Distribution Policy

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A federal district judge has upheld an Indiana school district's longstanding policy of allowing members of the Gideon organization to distribute Bibles to students on school grounds.

In a May 7 opinion, U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp ruled that the Rensselaer Central School Corporation's practice cannot be viewed "as an endorsement of the Christian faith."

Permitting the Gideons to offer Bibles to students "is no more an endorsement of Christianity than allowing Little League baseball to disseminate its materials endorses the national pastime," the judge wrote.

Franklin A. Morse 2nd, an Indiana Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented the parent who sued the district on behalf of his children, said the ruling would be appealed. He noted that other courts have prohibited the distribution of Bibles in public schools.

Decades-Old Policy

Rensselaer officials admitted the Gideons to classrooms under a policy that grants all groups except for Satan worshippers access to schools to provide information.

The Gideons have given Bibles annually to Rensselaer 5th graders "for so many decades that no one can remember when" the practice began, Judge Sharp noted.

During the Bible distribution, the judge said, Gideon members addressed students "for no longer than a couple of minutes" and gave Bibles only to those who wanted them. Teachers remained in the classroom as silent observers, he wrote.

"The school system's policy permitting the dissemination of literature of many local groups, whether of a religious affiliation or not, thus cannot reasonably be said to be an endorsement of any particular secular or religious viewpoint," he wrote.

Granting some local organizations access to schools while denying it to religious groups "would be manifestly hostile to religion," Judge Sharp added.

'Captive Audience'

Allen H. Berger, the parent who filed the suit, said the Rensselaer district is allowing a particular religious group "to proselytize the cap4tive audience" of public-school students.

"I find that offensive, especially as it involves relatively unsophisticated young children," said Mr. Berger, a professor and an assistant vice president at St. Joseph's College of Rensselaer, founded by a Roman Catholic religious order.

The Gideons voluntarily stopped distributing Bibles in the Rensselaer schools shortly after Mr. Berger objected in 1990. Judge Sharp ruled that that development did not render the case moot because the district's policy remained in effect.

John R. Price, the school district's lawyer, said Judge Sharp's decision would likely be upheld on appeal because this "is a clear case on both the law and the facts."

Vol. 10, Issue 36, Page 5

Published in Print: May 29, 1991, as Court Upholds Ind. District's Bible-Distribution Policy
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