Bible Distribution in Public Schools

The Gideons, in particular, focus their efforts on proselytizing school children through bible distribution. It is unfortunate that this group, among other evangelizing groups, view schools as ripe territory for recruitment. These organizations take advantage of truancy laws and the captive audience of school children to proselytize young students.

The Gideons International is self-described as “an interdenominational association of Christian business and professional men who are members of Protestant/evangelical churches. Our members are dedicated to saving the lost through personal witnessing and the distribution of God’s Word in more than 180 countries around the world.” The Gideons website openly refers to community schools as a prime target, specifically “students in the 5th grade and above.”

The Foundation has taken complaints over aggressive Gideon tactics, and complicity by school officials, for three decades. These violations include principals who, for years, have permitted members of the Gideon Society to visit classrooms to personally distribute bibles and talk to children, to stand in the halls handing out bibles, or outside the entrance as children leave. Some of the worst cases have involved reports that representatives were pitching bibles at young children entering school buses from school parking lots, even on occasion shoving them through school bus windows! (School safety rules always emphasize the importance of not distracting children as they enter buses, and ensuring that children’s materials are in backbacks, not their hands, to prevent accidents.) As parents we carefully instruct our children not to accept any gifts from strangers. The Gideon practice of distributing bibles to school children teaches them to ignore parental guidance and can pose safety risks when children have to find their way around the representatives.

It takes constant vigilance to keep the Gideons out of public schools. The Foundation has stopped violations occurring with principal knowledge one year, only to have the principals reinvite the Gideons the next! We have halted the Gideons from distributing bibles on school grounds, only to take complaints from parents that when the Gideons moved across the street, they enticed children to rush into traffic to get the “free” wares being hawked. Gideon representatives usually will appear in twos at schools, and parents understandably become nervous when adult men take an over-keen interest in handing materials to their young children without parental knowledge or permission. (Many Foundation members are also offended at the sexism of the Gideon Society, which does not permit women to join. Women must serve male Gideon members as “auxiliaries”!)

Bible Distribution in Public Schools Is Illegal

It is unconstitutional for public school districts to allow these groups to distribute bibles in classrooms during the school day. Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited. This means that Gideons cannot be present inside your child’s classroom or on public school grounds to distribute bibles. Public school officials—including principals and teachers—cannot hand out bibles or otherwise facilitate the distribution of bibles.

Courts have determined that allowing bible distribution at public schools—especially to elementary students who cannot make the distinction between private religious speech and state-sponsored speech—is unconstitutional not only because it appears to be government endorsement of Christianity, but also because of the social pressures students feel to accept the bibles. Moreover, these practices infringe parents’ rights to direct the religious, or non-religious, upbringing of their own children.

In one of the leading federal court decisions on this topic, Berger v. Rensselaer Central Sch. Corp., 982 F.2d 1160 (7th Cir. 1993), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, held that classroom distribution of Gideon bibles to fifth-graders violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In striking down the school district’s policy permitting Gideons to distribute bibles at the schools, the court stated, “. . . the Gideon Bible is unabashedly Christian. In permitting distribution of ‘The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ along with limited excerpts from the Old Testament, the schools affront not only non-religious people but all those whose faiths, or lack of faith, does not encompass the New Testament.” It is significant that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand this decision, just as it let stand Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 J.N. 31 (1953), cert. denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954) four decades earlier. The law is clear.

Courts have almost unanimously agreed that distribution of bibles in elementary schools—either actively or passively—is unconstitutional because young elementary school children are considered too impressionable to make the distinction between private religious speech and school-sponsored speech.

Anyone, including members of religious groups, may distribute bibles on public sidewalks. School districts cannot restrict or prohibit distribution of religious materials on public sidewalks or streets. If a Gideon representative or other individual is distributing religious literature on a sidewalk near a public school, it is important to determine whether it is a school sidewalk or a public sidewalk. If the school owns the sidewalk, school officials must request the representative to move down the block or go across the street to hand out bibles.

The Foundation takes the position that even if the sidewalk is public, the Gideons should not be allowed to distribute literature on sidewalks in front of the school. Oftentimes, the Gideons and other individuals handing out religious literature place themselves directly in front of school buses forcing children to go around them to get on the bus home. Even if the area is deemed a permissible point of distribution, as a parent you have a right to petition your local government and school board to adopt ordinances and policies prohibiting Gideons and other groups from distributing literature to school children on the sidewalk in front of the schools.

If a Gideon member is distributing bibles to your child in a public school, make sure:

  1. The school is not allowing the Gideons to distribute bibles in the classroom or during instructional hours.
  2. The distribution is taking place off school property and after school hours.
  3. The school faculty and staff are not encouraging, inviting or otherwise facilitating the distribution of the bibles.

Contact local school officials over any concerns. Even if Gideon bible instruction is taking place on city rather than school property, you may wish to write a letter to the editor over the Gideon’s unsavory tactic of targeting young children without parental knowledge.

If, after reading the above information, you believe there has been a violation of state/church separation, you may contact the FFRF for assistance in filing a complaint with the school district. If you are aware of an ongoing distribution, please phone the Foundation as well as your District Superintendent, and have contact information on school officials at the ready, so the Foundation may take swift action to stop illegal distribution on school property.

(It is important to note that the rights of Gideons to distribute religious literature on public school grounds differs from students’ rights to distribute the same materials. See the section below, entitled, Students Passing Out Religious Literature to Classmates for further information.)

What About Gideons on Public College Campuses?

Generally, so long as the Gideons are on sidewalks and public walkways, they may hand out bibles on public college campuses. So if this happens on your campus, check with your Dean of Students’ office or the the college website on policies regulating nonstudent activity on campus. If such activity violates campus regulations or permits are required, report the incident promptly to the appropriate authorities.

Freedom From Religion Foundation