Earlier this school year in Wilson County, Tennessee, fifth-grader Joann Doe was brought into the school gym just after school had started along with the members of all three of Carroll-Oakland Elementary’s fifth-grade classes. While sitting on the gym’s bleachers, the students were introduced to a group of representatives of the Gideons by Principal Carol Ferrell, who told the students about the time in her life when she received her first Bible and about the importance of that occasion. After being told by Gideons representatives about how they distribute Bibles all over the world, Joann Doe’s teacher informed the students that she would be calling up each row of fifth graders to retrieve a Bible, and that taking a Bible was not necessary or mandatory. After the Bibles had been distributed, Joann and her classmates returned to their classroom, where they were instructed by their teacher to write their names in the Bibles for their own personal use.
Despite being told that taking a Bible was optional, obviously any student in such a situation would have felt pressured to take one, particularly when the students were passing by the basket of Bibles one by one with everyone else watching. Indeed, Joann later told her parents and the ACLU of Tennessee that she did take a Bible, but only because of peer pressure from other students and her fear of being ostracized if she chose not to.
That’s the problem with public schools getting entangled with religious organizations: it’s too easy for them to violate the vital constitutional principle of religious liberty. By virtue of being an institution of learning, whose authority we teach children to respect, schools automatically bear a great responsibility to ensure that they do not pressure students in matters of faith, either intentionally or inadvertently. Students and their families cannot feel comfortable expressing their own religious beliefs when their teachers and administrators are imposing their own beliefs on them.
After Joann’s family contacted the ACLU of Tennessee about her experience, we sent a letter to the Wilson County Board of Education demanding that the practice of distributing Bibles to students on school campuses during school hours be stopped.
Decisions about private matters like religion should be left in the hands of families and faith communities. Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee agreed with the ACLU of Tennessee on this issue in a recent interview on Fox & Friends. “I think they’re right," Gov. Huckabee said. "You don’t want the school imposing a religious doctrine on kids. They’re absolutely right. And it’s very difficult for me to ever come to the place where I say I agree with the ACLU.”
Gov. Huckabee goes on in the interview to imply that the ACLU claims that exposing children to the Bible might warp them in some way. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. What the ACLU does stand for is the freedom for people to practice any religion they choose — including Christianity, or none at all. That’s why we had to step into the situation in Wilson County.
In the end, Wilson County school officials agreed to end the practice. That’s happy news for Joann Doe and all of the other Wilson County students in the years to come who can now, with their families and faith communities, make their own decisions about religion without influence from school officials. And that’s one thing Mike Huckabee and the ACLU of Tennessee can agree is a good thing.