After attempting to end the practice for several decades, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to remove Gideon bibles from its 137 guest rooms.
In November, the complainant who encountered the bible at the Lowell Center on the UW-Madison campus complained to Madison-based FFRF, a state/church watchdog and the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics).
The seven-story conference center hosts events of up to 400 people and was used by the UW secular student group — Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — to host a freethought festival last March.
Patrick Elliott, one of FFRF's five staff attorneys, took action, contacting UW-Extension: "When a government entity like the Lowell Center allows distribution of religious material to visitors, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message."
UW-Extension indicated, after reviewing FFRF's letter, that all bibles would be removed from guest rooms by Dec. 1. Read the response.
Elliott called it a solid victory for state/church separation. "While private hotels may choose to put any type of literature they want in their guest rooms, state-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion."
FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor first contacted UW-Extension in the 1980s and 1990s about the unconstitutional practice. Now 87, Gaylor responded, "It's satisfying to finally see this violation remedied."
While FFRF directs most of its energy to fighting infringements of the separation of state and church, it has also routinely asked the hotel industry to inaugurate "bible-free" rooms, just as hotels and motels offer smoke-free rooms.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker commented, "We atheists and agnostics do not appreciate paying high prices for lodging, only to find Gideon bibles in our hotel rooms, sometimes prominently displayed, knowing they contain instructions, for instance, to kill 'infidels' and 'blasphemers,' among other primitive and dangerous teachings."
Gideon International exists, according to its website, to "win the lost for Christ, and our unique method is the distribution of bibles and New Testaments in select streams of life."
The organization does not allow women to be full members. Infamously, the society particularly targets fifth graders in public schools and brags about it on its website.
For more than three decades, FFRF has taken complaints about aggressive Gideon tactics and complicity by some school officials. Violations include principals openly permitting Gideon members to visit classrooms to 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 to young children entering school buses from school parking lots, even on occasion shoving them through school bus windows.
For many years, FFRF has offered stickers for travelers to place on Gideon bibles: Gideon Exposed, details the reprehensible character of Gideon, namesake of the bible society (read Judges, chapters 6-9). The other label warns that "literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life."