The Gideons and Brunswick County Schools: Mark Campbell

By Mark Campbell

I heard a report on a local TV station newscast earlier this year that our school board had received a request by the Gideons to hand out their bibles at local schools in Brunswick County, N.C. Gideons had routinely and unlawfuly distributed bibles in the area, but several years ago the board had done the right thing and denied them entry. Now the Gideons were back.

My first reaction was shock that a group would try to do something so illegal. My next reaction was fear that in this very rural part of the bible belt,” the school board might very well cave in.

I decided to get involved immediately. I looked up the next school board meeting and cleared my calendar. I wanted to go to the meeting with some ammunition so I contacted Annie Laurie Gaylor at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, because she had helped me in the past with another successful battle. We had a dispute with the local police department over religious symbols on the city police cars. It took a while, but we got it resolved. From that fight, I had learned what the general feeling was around here. If it has to do with the bible or Christianity, it must be a good thing! Forget the Constitution or Bill of Rights. These people take religion seriously.

I attended the first school board meeting at the beginning of April. The room was full of cameras and reporters. Finally, the time came to address two policies: religion in schools and distribution of material to students. You could feel the tension increase as the board started its discussion. Three board members started out saying how they wanted bibles in the school, and that all the evil things in the schools could be helped by putting the bible in the hands of the children. Two more level-headed board members reminded the board that if they started handing out bibles, they will also have to allow all other forms of religious literature in the schools.

One member gave a little speech which had me chomping at the bit! His story was about a child raised in a home where the parents don’t allow any bibles. The parents don’t take the child to church or allow him to receive a bible from any other source. What’s wrong with the school allowing that child access to a bible? He just did not see any problem at all. Forget about the right of the parents to raise their children in the manner they see fit. When it comes to a religious upbringing, this school board knew better.

They voted 3 to 2 to pass the policy to permit the Gideons to distribute bibles in elementary schools. It would be reviewed by the lawyers and reread at the next board meeting in May.

I left the meeting seething. I could not believe what I had just heard. I spoke to another family of Christians, who agreed with me on this issue. We both spoke to a reporter, saying that we felt that the board was overstepping the boundary between church and state.

E-mails flew between me and the board of education and to Annie Laurie at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who sent a strong letter to the board. It was quoted and reported by local press, pointing out more than 50 years of court precedent strictly forbidding the Gideons from passing out bibles on school property. She also put me in contact with a distinguished civil rights lawyer, George Daly. Mr. Daly explained that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs federal courts in my state, had ruled it permissible for public schools to place a table in a neutral place on high school grounds to make religious material available to students. There could be no religious representatives present. (The 4th Circuit stands alone in such a ruling.)

Over the next month the local TV and newspaper kept up the pressure, I think in big part due to Mr. Daly and FFRF. They interviewed the board members who, for the most part, said they felt the bible would be a wonderful thing in the schools. (So much for being neutral.) What about literature from Wiccans, Voodoo practitioners, pagans (and even Flying Spaghetti Monsters–as Mr. Daly would point out during his address to the board)?

Mr. Daly persisted in his request to address the board before their second vote, making a five-hour drive to be there.

As the local TV news reported: “Two people did speak to the board about the issue. One for allowing the bible in schools: ‘This right here don’t hurt nobody,’ one resident said, holding a bible. ‘Sure helped me.’ And one against: ‘The Constitution not only guarantees your freedom of religion. It sets up the separation of church and state,’ civil rights attorney George Daly said.”

About that time I was feeling pretty good. I still joke with my friends who wanted the bibles in schools that they could have gotten a better spokesman.

After the normal business was over, the board chairperson addressed the audience. He reported that a couple of hours before this meeting, the board had a conference call with the North Carolina state legal team, and surprise, surprise! The school board was told that it could not alter the ruling and hope to have it stand up in court. The board decided to “table” the recommendation indefinitely.

Some of the board members were not happy. One tried unsuccessfully to push the policy through anyway, but got no support from the rest of the board. Another board member surprised me when she did exactly what I had wanted to do. She held up a Wiccan bible and a pagan worshipping guide and explained to the media that she did not want this out on tables for the children to pick up. My point exactly!

With the help and support of Mr. Daly and FFRF, we have won this round of the battle, but the war goes on. I plan on continuing to monitor this board and their actions.

I learned a few important lessons here. 1) We can all make a difference if we are willing to stand up and be counted. 2) The media can be your friend if used correctly. 3) There are a lot more people out there with the same beliefs as myself. All I had to do was step forward and I have been joined by many other locals who were scared to speak out. Don’t be. If you feel like someone is doing something wrong, speak out.

Thank you so much, FFRF, for all your help.

Foundation member Mark Campbell is from Southern California: “I was raised in a religious Southern Baptist family. We moved to Oregon when I was a teenager so my father could attend seminary school. I was baptized and an active member of the church for many years. I proudly served in the Air Force for about 12 years. I have three children, only one of whom was baptized.

“I have questioned religion since I was very young but was always given the standard answer that when it doesn’t make sense, ‘Just have faith.’ It wasn’t until I reached my 40s and moved to the bible belt that I really began to question religion. I searched for other religions and attended other churches. When I started to read the bible, which I found most Christians don’t do, then I was really confused. I started doing web searches on bible contradictions where I came across the FFRF website’s excellent bible quiz. It really opened my eyes.

“I had a hard time letting go, but when I did it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was like being baptized again and seeing the light, only this time it was the light of knowledge and truth. By coming out in public, I have lifted the blanket of fear you have by sneaking around with your feelings in your back pocket. I can stand up now and be proud that I am an atheist. I made my decision through study and intelligent thought, not because someone told me it was the right thing to do. Again I encourage others to stand up and be heard. It’s a real way to be born again.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation