Gideons Run Afoul of First Amendment by Annie Laurie Gaylor (April 1996)

April 1996

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Waynesboro, PA Complaint

Following illegal distribution of New Testaments last fall by Gideons International in elementary schools in Waynesboro, PA, a father there is fighting fire with fire.
Carl Silverman is testing policy by asking the school district for permission to distribute a Foundation pamphlet, “God Is Just Pretend,” to area fifth- and six-grade students.

The pamphlet is an excerpt from Just Pretend: A Freethought For Book for Children by Dan Barker (FFRF, 1988), comparing belief in a god to belief in Santa Claus.

In a letter to Superintendent Robert Mesaros dated Jan. 4, 1996, Silverman noted that censoring the pamphlet would constitute “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Following Silverman’s request, the school board has asked the solicitor to review the distribution policy. The Record Herald in Waynesboro reported in late February that it might take months for a decision to be made.

A local court ruling in 1987 overturned school policy barring students from distributing a religious magazine in school. The judge said the district could not restrict student distribution except by reasonable time, place and manner guidelines.

However, as the Foundation noted in its own letter of complaint to the district, it has been settled law for more than 45 years that bible distribution by Gideons International is illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1953 and in 1993 let stand lower court rulings barring Gideons from passing out bibles in schools.

“You have violated the right to freedom of conscience of school children, that most vulnerable class of citizens, and offended the Establishment Clause,” the Foundation noted in a letter on Nov. 8, 1995 to then-Superintendent Michael Mosalski.

Needless to say, controversy has erupted in Waynesboro, with major stories covering the request and many letters to the editor condemning Silverman. One letter started: “Satan is alive and well and at work in Waynesboro.”

In a gratifying development, the newspaper in Chambersburg, PA, editorialized in favor of Silverman: “School board should reverse earlier decision” (2/22/96):

“If the school board allows Bibles and excludes other material, it is showing a preference. Therefore, the correct decision would be to ban all outside materials from being distributed in public schools. No private organization should be permitted to push an agenda in public schools paid for by taxpayers.”
Also questioning the policy and defending Carl Silverman was the Record Herald (2/21/96). Editor Steven Bornholft of the News Herald also wrote a column (2/21/96) saying “Schools should ban all literature from outsiders.”
The school board gave the Gideons permission to hand out bibles in 1994, but after controversy erupted, the Gideons withdrew the request. In the fall of 1995, the Gideons were again given permission, and this time entered the schools. Bibles were placed in a central location with an announcement made by school officials telling fifth- and sixth-graders they could pick up a bible if they chose. One parent of a fourth grader complained about the policy, noting younger children were also taking them. The distribution apparently has been going on for at least 20 years.

Current school board president Dr. Robert Ternes and Vice President Donald Weller voted against admitting the Gideons in 1994.

Write: Waynesboro Area School District, 210 Clayton Ave., Waynsboro PA 17268 and Letters to the Editor, Record Herald, P.O. Box 271, Waynesboro PA 17268.

Panama City, FL

On behalf of residents in Panama City, the Foundation has complained about distribution of New Testaments to schoolchildren there on Dec. 12.
The complaint resulted in two in-depth articles in the local newspaper.

Superintendent Stefanie S. Gall told the newspaper she had turned the matter over to Bay County School Board attorney Franklin Harrison, who told her the policy does not violate the Constitution or any other laws.

In January of 1995, at the apparent behest of Gideons International, the school board approved a new policy whereby any person or group could distribute literature if approved by the school principal and superintendent at least 72 hours beforehand.

Board chairwoman Linda Grantham commented:

“The tradition and service of the Gideon society through the years, of offering their New Testaments to fifth grade children if they want one, has been a respected and valued tradition, probably particularly in the South.”
“It should not be necessary to repeatedly defend our Constitution or school children from renegade public officials,” the Foundation responded. The Foundation noted that school children are a captive audience, that Gideons International is seeking to proselytize small children without parental consent, that the law is clear that this is illegal, and that the school district is acting as “a conduit and arm of an evangelistic group.”
Write: Dr. Stefanie Gall, Superintendent, Bay County District Schools, 1311 Balboa Ave, Panama City FL 32401.

Freedom From Religion Foundation