By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
ASHEVILLE — The latest controversy regarding Gideon International’s distribution of Bibles at a Tar Heel school has the Buncombe County Board of Education scrutinizing its policies regarding a number of religious activities and the Christian Action League urging them not to shut the door on faith oriented materials.
“There are a number of factors that should be taken into consideration when trying to determine whether the Gideon distribution of Bibles is within the school’s constitutional rights as defined by the courts over the years,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “We’re hopeful the school system will take a thorough look at the issue and not just employ a knee-jerk reaction and ban religious materials outright.”
The controversy arose when Ginger Strivelli, co-founding Priestess of The Appalachian Pagan Alliance and a mother of six, became upset when her son brought home a Bible from North Windy Ridge Intermediate School in Weaverville on Dec. 19. The fifth- and sixth-grade school had allowed students to pick up the Bibles, provided by Gideons, in an office during break.
When Strivelli complained, she was told that materials offered by any other group would be handled the same way. However, by the time she returned with some Pagan spell books on Jan. 4, she was told that the school wasn’t accepting any religious materials.
“Buncombe County school officials are currently reviewing relevant policies and practices with school board attorneys; during this review period, no school in the system will be accepting donation of materials that could be viewed as advocating a particular religion or belief,” read the statement released by the school system.
Since then, the Asheville Citizen-Times has reported that the school district is considering its restrictions on a number of religious activities including chaplain-led prayer with sports teams, choral groups singing hymns at Christmas concerts and more.
Board of Education members say the issue will likely be discussed at a Jan. 25 workshop, and that their attorney may present his recommendations at a Feb. 2 board meeting.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Creech and other pastors have spoken out urging the schools to establish a policy that is open and fair.
Rusty Smart, an associate pastor at Calvary Worship Center in Marshall, told the Citizen-Times that religious materials of all kinds should be available and that if his son brought home a Pagan spell book or a Quran or Torah, he would use it as a springboard to discuss his Christian beliefs.
The Rev. Creech said that if the school allows other outside organizations to distribute information to public school students then the school cannot prohibit religious persons or groups from coming on campus to share their materials as well.
“It’s the same principle of equal access that contends that if a school allows use of its facilities during after school hours to secular groups, then it must grant the same privilege to religious groups. The only difference here is that one activity is taking place during school hours while the other is not,” he said, adding that the time and place of the distribution are also factors to be considered.
“It is usually better to distribute the material from the hallways from a table so that those wishing to take them may approach the table, and those who don’t may simply pass them by,” he said. “The best time is just before or just after the official school day starts or ends. In this way, students headed to class or leaving school for the day can best pick up the materials voluntarily from a designated table.”
Although the American Civil Liberties Union, contacted by Strivelli, insists that case law prohibits the distribution of religious materials to students younger than those in high school, the Alliance Defense Fund says that’s not the case. The ADF points out that three years after the oft-cited Peck v. Upshur County Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, that the age of the students is irrelevant to the constitutionality of a policy of equal access for literature distribution by outside groups.
The ADF has advised many school districts on this issue and informed them that they could be in violation of the First Amendment Free Speech Clause if they prohibit the distribution of Bibles and other religious texts while allowing nonreligious materials.
“With this in mind, we hope Buncombe County moves ahead with an equal access policy so that all groups are treated fairly,” Dr. Creech said. “If they instead ban any access to religious oriented materials, their actions could indeed be found unconstitutional by the courts.”
This same issue also came up in Harnett and Columbus Counties during 2007.
Read Rev. Creech’s previously written editorial, “No More Bibles for the Children.”