The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit June 13 in U.S. District Court in Florida against the Orange County School Board in Orlando for censoring distribution of freethought materials while allowing unfettered distribution of the Christian bible.
Plaintiffs are FFRF, its Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, and David Williamson, who heads the Central Florida Freethought Community, an FFRF chapter. Distribution of limited freethought literature was allowed on May 2, the National Day of Prayer.
The distribution was organized in response to a so-called "passive" bible distribution in January, when World Changers evangelists in about 11 public schools were permitted to hawk bibles and promote religion.
FFRF asserts violation of its rights under the First Amendment (viewpoint discrimination and prior restraint) and 14th Amendment (equal protection).
Orange County Public Schools insisted on vetting the freethought literature from FFRF and other secular groups. It censored many of the materials, including "Letter to a Christian Nation," Sam Harris' book; "The Truth," an essay by Robert G. Ingersoll; "Jesus Is Dead" a book by Robert Price, professor of philosophy and religion; "What on Earth Is an Atheist," a book by Madalyn Murray O'Hair; "Why I am Not a Muslim," a book by Ibn Warraq, and several FFRF "nontracts," including "Dear Believer," "Why Jesus?" "What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?" and "An X-Rated Book."
Plaintiffs Barker and Gaylor wrote several of the censored pamphlets.
The school district prohibited one book because its message that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected "is age inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school.” However, the bible that the school approved for distribution claims that Jesus [ITAl] was [OFF] crucified and resurrected. "Permitting one viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection occurred) and censoring the opposing viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection did not occur) is unconstitutional," FFRF's complaint states.
FFRF, which has more than 19,000 members nationwide and about 900 in Florida, seeks a permanent injunction barring future viewpoint discrimination and prior restraint of its speech. The plaintiffs intend to repeat the distribution every school year, unless the school prohibits all such distributions, including bibles.
The district has created a limited public forum in Orange County public schools. On Jan. 16, World Changers of Florida used the forum to distribute New International Version bibles to students in 11 schools. WCF “support[s] the biblical account of creation, including having creation theory taught in our public schools” and “speak[s] out against humanistic views contrary to the biblically based founding fathers’ constitutional vision.”
The complaint asserts that the district "did not object to a single word in [the WCF] Bible, but approved it fully and without comment."
The plaintiffs contend that public schools shouldn't allow literature distributions by any outside group and told the school district that by letter before the World Changers event. Williamson reiterated that position at a Jan. 29 pre-agenda meeting of the School Board.
FFRF encouraged the district to adopt a policy that “prohibits outside groups from turning schools into religious battlegrounds while preserving the distribution system for the benefit of the school” and suggested model language.
After the district refused, FFRF asked for permission to distribute secular materials. Williamson submitted the secular groups’ literature Jan. 29 for approval. Included were nine “nontracts,” five brochures, eight books, one essay and one sticker. Three books were voluntarily withdrawn in order to speed the approval process after stonewalling by the district.
The district prohibited four of FFRF's five books, leaving part of one (Part III of Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason") and several small pamphlets. "Good Without God" stickers were prohibited.
The complaint lists dozens of factual examples of how secular materials and secular volunteers were treated differently from the World Changers and the biblical material:
- The district objected to the Harris book for describing "the sacrifice of virgins, killing and eating of children in order to ensure the future fertility of mothers, feeding infants to sharks, and the burning of widows so they can follow their husbands into the next world." FFRF's complaint notes that the concepts flagged as age inappropriate all appear in the bible.
- WCF put up interactive whiteboards, had volunteers staffing tables to talk with students and passed out invitations to worship at the Orlando Wesleyan Church. Plaintiffs attempted to pass out a pizza party invitation but were censored at several schools. Freethought volunteers had to wait up to an hour at some schools to set up.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who negotiated the distribution with the district, noted that it's not merely the number of books and materials — it's the volume. He calculated that while the average bible has about 1,950 pages, the secular books totaled 1,184 pages.
Seidel added, "Moreover, there are actually 66 books in bible (give or take depending on your particular religion). Either way you look at it, the bible is more massive than all the materials we are asking to distribute put together."
Plaintiffs' attorneys are Jerry Jeffreys, trial counsel; Steven Brady, co-counsel; and Seidel, pro hac vice co-counsel. They are working pro bono.
FFRF thanks chapter director David Williamson for serving as principal plaintiff and for his diligence in coordinating the literature distribution with FFRF, Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association and Florida Atheists, Secular Humanists and American Atheists.