Legal Update: Passing out Bibles in School
Dear School Administrator: Many of you allow Bibles to be made available to the student body at a specified location in your schools. On April 22, 2008, a federal district court in Louisiana declared this practice to be unconstitutional in a middle school.
In John Doe v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board, the question was whether the distribution of Gideon Bibles at a middle school violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In this case, the Gideons visited the school to distribute Bibles to the fifth grade class. The teachers organized the students so that they could pick up a Bible. The students were told they did not have to get a Bible. However, one of the students felt pressured to get a Bible because of potential teasing and name-calling by her peers if she refused.
In several cases, Supreme Court has established several tests for determining violations of the Establishment Clause. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court established a three part test for determining whether the state action violates the Establishment Clause. In order to be constitutional under the Lemon test, the action must: (1) have a secular purpose; (2) must not advance or inhibit religion; and (3) must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. Under the Lee v. Weisman “coercion” test, the state actor may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which establishes religion. The Supreme Court final test is the County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union “endorsement” test.
In analyzing the coercion test, the Court determined that the middle school student was subject to coercion because she was an impressionable young elementary-age child, experienced pressure to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which establishes religion. The Court found the district’s actions violated the coercion test.
Under the Lemon test, the Court found that the distribution of Gideon Bibles is “unquestionably religious” and advances Christianity. Since the teachers were required to inquire as to which students wanted the Bibles, and then organize and direct them to the principal’s office, the teachers became excessively entangled with religion.
For the reasons above, passing out Bibles also failed the endorsement test. In addition, since the distribution of the Bibles was supported by the Board, the Board “created the impression in young, impressionable minds that the school endorsed a particular belief: Christianity.”
The Court found that this practice violated every constitutional test and was therefore unconstitutional. There is clearly a problem with the way this particular school allowed the teachers to become involved. I think the lesson to be learned here is that if school officials have any appreciable involvement in the distribution process there will be arguments of coercion and establishment. This case questions whether it is ever appropriate to distribute religious literature in an elementary or middle school setting.
In case you did not notice, this is same school district that was sued for allowing prayer at school board meetings, which they ultimately won on appeal due to a technicality unrelated to the prayer.
This case is not binding on Texas Courts, but merely persuasive. I fully expect this decision to be appealed to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit’s decision will be ultimately become the law in Texas. Nevertheless, do not be surprised if plaintiff lawyers begin filing lawsuits in Texas based on this case. I will keep you updated.
If you would like a copy of this decision, please feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I will be happy to send you a copy.
Please feel free to call the Law Office of Stephen E. Dubner at 214-257-8818 if you have any questions or need any additional information.