The Freedom From Religion Foundation is alarmed at the illegal access that a Texas school district provided to the Gideons for distributing bibles to elementary school kids.
A concerned community member from Wichita Falls, Texas, contacted FFRF to report that on Feb. 24, several classes of students were taken out of their classrooms at West Foundation Elementary School during instructional time and escorted by teachers to the edge of school property, where representatives from the evangelical group Gideons International distributed bibles to the students.
"Public school districts have a constitutional obligation to ensure that teachers do not use their positions as educators to promote their personal religious beliefs," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to Wichita Falls Independent School District Superintendent Michael Kuhrt. "The teachers of West Foundation Elementary have no authority to take students out of the classroom for an event coordinated with a religious organization. Gideons International is a self-described 'association of Christian business and professional men and their wives dedicated to telling people about Jesus through associating together for service, sharing personal testimony, and by providing Bibles and New Testaments.'"
Parents, not the school district, are responsible for determining the religious or nonreligious upbringing of their children, FFRF emphasizes. Courts have ruled that public schools may not allow religious organizations such as the Gideons to prey on a captive audience of children and distribute bibles on school property. FFRF adds that the proselytization in this instance is particularly egregious, since the students the Gideons targeted were especially young and impressionable.
"We're talking about 5-to-12-year-olds here," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It's outrageous that the school district gave the Gideons access to such little children."
FFRF requests that the Wichita Falls Independent School District investigate this situation and make it clear to its employees that it is illegal to facilitate the distribution of religious materials to students in the future.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has more than 27,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,200-plus in Texas.
Cierra Fields is cancer survivor, rape survivor who fights for everyone
Cierra received a $1,000 Strong Backbone Student Activist Award endowed by a kind octogenarian FFRF member from New York, who prefers to remain anonymous, and donates the scholarship fund annually to celebrate his birthday.
Despite being just 17 years old, Cierra Fields has a long history of fighting back, standing up, and most recently, sitting down for her rights.
Fields, a high school senior in Fort Gibson, Okla., was removed from her classroom for refusing to stand for or say the Pledge of Allegiance on Feb. 28.
"After I said I was not going to participate, my teacher raised her voice and said she refused to educate ungodly and unpatriotic students," she told the Indian Country Media Network.
Fields said that the teacher took her into the hallway, "in direct view of some of the students," and yelled at Fields about how the teacher's father missed a year of her life in Vietnam and how her husband was an Afghanistan war veteran. But Fields' father is also a military veteran, who served 10 years in the U.S. Army.
"So when this teacher removed me from class, questioned my beliefs, and berated me about disrespecting her father/husband's military service while also telling me that I dishonored my own father, she apparently did not know who she was unloading on," Fields wrote in an email to FFRF.
"My parents have raised my sister and me to know our rights and to fight for our beliefs at all times, even when no one else does. Thankfully, my parents also believe in freethinking. They may not necessarily agree with all my thoughts or ideas, but honor the fact that they are my thoughts and ideas. Obviously, my parents support my decision to sit quietly and resist the teacher's shaming/bullying behavior."
It's not just sitting for the pledge that has gained Fields her notoriety.
Fields, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, is a two-time melanoma survivor who, at age 12, began volunteering for the Cherokee Nation Comprehensive Cancer Control Program and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
When Fields was 14, she was honored as a Champion for Change by the Center for Native American Youth in Washington, D.C., by Sen. Byron Dorgan for her cancer prevention work. "This honor allowed me to expand my message to a national Native population and I began traveling across the U.S. talking to Native youth," she wrote.
Then, at age 15, she was raped.
"I had become a part of one of the most appalling statistics in America," Fields wrote. "One in three Native women are raped in their lifetimes. Think about that. One in three. But I have the most amazing parents and support system. I reported my rape immediately and successfully prosecuted my rapist, who also is now an appalling statistic, too. Only two out of 100 rapists are ever convicted of their crime."
Her activist genes kicked into overdrive.
"I began speaking out as soon I could," she wrote. "Rape has such a stigma and taboo overtones. I refused to hide because I did nothing wrong. I now speak out for those who cannot or are not ready to. Rapists count on our silence and I refuse to be silent."
Fields has been a delegate to the United Nations 58th Commission on the Status of Women, a 2016 White House Changemaker, and was honored at the United States of Women by First Lady Michelle Obama.
In March, she attended the Youth Summit in Washington, D.C., as a member of the board for Raliance, a group that is pushing to "end sexual violence in one generation."
Despite much of her time spent in her activism, Fields is also an award-winning Southeastern Woodland textile artist who specializes in twinning fabric and netting. She creates traditional feather capes worn by her ancestors, as well as traditional clothing from the 18th century to modern tribal dress. She is also a jingle dancer and enjoys dancing at pow wows.
Fields plans to attend college in the fall. While already accepted to six colleges, she is still waiting to hear from her top picks, including Harvard, Stanford, Mount Holyoke, Brandeis, Vassar, Wellesly, MacAlester, Haverford and Amherst.
Because she stood for the Constitution by sitting down for the pledge, FFRF is proud to offer her the Strong Backbone Award.
"I was shocked when this happened because I had not had a teacher go this far before," Fields wrote. "Sadly, she didn't want to hear about the First Amendment or West Virginia School State Board v. Barnette or my personal beliefs. I hope that my story gives others the courage to take a stand for what they believe in, too."