No official burying of bibles, FFRF advises Texas school district

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is in disbelief at a Texas school district’s burying of a bible to commemorate a new building — and the district’s explanation isn’t helping.

A concerned Harleton Independent School District alumni and community member informed the state/church watchdog that on April 17 district staff and students celebrated the construction of a new archery facility by burying a Christian bible where the building’s door will be erected. A post on the official Harleton ISD Facebook page stated:

This afternoon a small group met together to thank God for the blessing of our new archery building. We buried a bible where the door will be. A concrete foundation will be poured in the morning but we wanted God’s Word to be part of the building foundation.Great things are happening in the Harleton Archery program!

It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion, FFRF emphasized in its initial communication.

“By promoting Christianity at an official district event and on its official Facebook page, the district demonstrates blatant favoritism towards religion over nonreligion, and Christianity above all other faiths,” FFRF Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote to Harleton ISD Superintendent Jay Ratcliff. “This needlessly alienates all district students, alumni and community members who do not subscribe to Christianity, including those belonging to the nearly one in three Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated.”

Furthermore, FFRF pointed out, the Supreme Court has described the power of social media sites as “the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” School officials must be particularly diligent not to entangle religious beliefs with official announcements made in this “modern public square.”

The superintendent’s response fell a bit short in explanatory power.

“As you may be aware, the Harleton Independent School District permits citizens to post on its Facebook page,” Ratcliff wrote back. “The individual who made this post, while also an employee, was acting in her personal capacity in attending the dedication ceremony. She and a small group of other individuals met and buried a bible on the property. This was not a school activity, nor did anyone in the school object to the group’s freedom of religion to express themselves in this way.”

He concluded, “The school itself does not do anything that would violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause.”

FFRF has written to the district afresh pointing out flaws in Ratcliff’s reply.

“Posts on the official Harleton ISD Facebook page are government speech, not private speech,” FFRF’s follow-up letter states. “The post in question, as well as all other posts on the Harleton ISD Facebook page, are clearly attributable to the district itself.”

Besides, FFRF underscores, it is constitutionally problematic for the district to claim that burying one religion’s holy book at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new school facility is a permissible private activity. The practical reality is that the district allowed and facilitated a bible burying — and then proceeded to announce the bible burying via its official Facebook page.

“A bible burial is a novel way to violate the First Amendment, but it is still a violation,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The district cannot allow private citizens to appropriate school property for burials of bibles or other religious uses, much less publicize religious ceremonies on its official website.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,700 members and a local chapter in Texas. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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