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Freethought Today · May 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

To counter Florida school bible handouts

FFRF helps distribute secular lit; some censored

FFRF and its new chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, passed out atheist and freethought literature to students in Orange County Public Schools on May 2 (the National Day of Prayer). About 18 freethinkers from various local groups volunteered to staff tables.

The distribution, coordinated by CFFC Director David Williamson, working with FFRF and other secular groups, was in response to bible distribution by World Changers in the public schools in February. Evangelists were permitted to set up tables in about 11 schools to hawk bibles and promote religion.

After many delays and protracted negotiations by the chapter and FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, the school district finally approved distribution of some nonreligious literature. The district demanded the right to vet the freethought literature, announcing a last-minute decision to censor many submitted publications, including Sam Harris’ book, Letter to a Christian Nation and an essay, “The Truth,” by 19th-century freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll.

Also censored were 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.”

Among the handouts approved were several nontracts published by FFRF, including “What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments?,” “Ten Common Myths About Atheists,” and “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion.” A section from “The Age of Reason,” a classic critique of the bible by Thomas Paine, and the brochure “Why Atheism” are being distributed by other secular groups involved in the protest.

“The irony is that the bible, a bestseller that’s rarely read, is X-rated, full of violence, obscenity and immoral conduct committed by or blessed by the biblical deity,” commented Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, who traveled from Madison, Wis., to be present at several of the distributions. 

“Yet the school district did not censor the bible, instead finding that innocuous comments by Sam Harris may ‘cause a substantial disruption’ to the school day,” he added. “Predatory evangelical groups like World Changers and Liberty Counsel see public schools as a recruiting ground. Public schools exist to educate, not to proselytize. Schools don’t need to allow these distributions, but as long as they do, we will distribute our own nonreligious materials.”

Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm, had first bullied Florida’s Collier County Schools into opening high school campuses for World Changers of Florida to distribute Christian bibles during the school day. Unfortunately, the district, after being sued by World Changers, recently decided to settle out of court, and paid the evangelists $20,000 in legal fees.

World Changers then approached Orange County Schools, which immediately agreed to let them in. World Changers had freely interacted with students at some schools during the February bible distribution.

The distribution of freethought materials took place during the school day in 11 Orange County schools: Apopka High, Wekiva High, Boone High, Jones High, Colonial High, Winter Park 9th Grade Center, Edgewater High, Evans High, Timber Creek High, University High and Cypress Creek High. CFFC and other area groups staffed tables at these schools throughout the school day on May 2, after being given strict instructions not to interact with students.

A Boone High school senior repeatedly admitted to a TV reporter that she poured water on the secular literature. Setup was delayed an hour, with the principal insisting on escorting the volunteer, which was not done for the bible distribution. Secular materials were trashed in at least one other school.

A Secular Student Alliance group headed by Daniel Koster oversaw the distribution at Wekiva High. Even though as a student club it’s not subject to the same passive distribution rules as outside groups, the students were warned by officials they couldn’t interact.

Koster discussed the situation on Freethought Radio on May 11 (hear the podcast at: ffrf.org/radio/), noting that evangelists had interacted openly with him and other students in February. 

Slips inviting students to an after-school pizza party put on by CFFC, FFRF and other secular groups were not distributed in many of the schools, even though World Changers was allowed to solicit students for an after-school event.

FFRF called the school district’s censorship of some freethought publications illegal. Stay tuned!

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