Wilson County School Officials Agree To End Annual Distribution Of Bibles To Elementary School Students

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
January 5, 2010 12:00 am

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Annual Practice Imperiled Religious Liberty

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NASHVILLE – After the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee threatened to file a lawsuit, Wilson County school officials have agreed to end the annual practice of allowing the unconstitutional distribution of Bibles to students at a Lebanon elementary school and all other Wilson County schools.

The agreement prohibits all Wilson County Schools employees from “promoting, endorsing and acquiescing in the distribution of Bibles to students of the Wilson County Schools on school grounds during school hours.” Wilson County school officials had previously allowed representatives from The Gideons International to distribute Bibles containing the books of the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs to fifth-grade students during school hours at Carroll-Oakland Elementary School.

“Decisions about religion should be left in the hands of families and faith communities, not public school officials,” said Edmund J. Schmidt III, an ACLU cooperating attorney. “The vital constitutional principle of religious liberty is best protected when the government stays out of religion. Students and their families cannot feel comfortable expressing their religious beliefs when their teachers and administrators are imposing their own particular religious beliefs.”

The ACLU sent a letter to Wilson County Board of Education attorney Michael R. Jennings Oct. 8 demanding that the practice of distributing Bibles to students on school campuses during school hours be stopped. The letter was prompted by John and Jane Doe, the parents of two Wilson County students who complained to the ACLU about the Bible distributions.

Earlier this school year, the Doe’s fifth-grade daughter, Joann, was brought into the school gym just after school had started along with the members of all three of the school’s fifth grade classes. While sitting on the gym’s bleachers, the students were introduced to a group of representatives of The Gideons by Carroll-Oakland’s 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 The 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. However, every student came forward to take a Bible from a basket full of Bibles, and Joann Doe said she did so only because of peer pressure from other students and her fear of being ostracized if she chose not to.

After the Bibles had been distributed, Joann Doe 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.

“Wilson County Board of Education members deserve a great deal of credit for entering into this agreement, which reinforces the important constitutional principle of religious freedom,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “The signed agreement ensures that the school system will not endorse one particular religious belief over another and that all students attending Wilson County public schools will be treated fairly and have the right to choose whether to practice their faith without school officials taking sides.”

Others experiencing similar illegal activities in their public schools can notify the ACLU of Tennessee at (615) 320-7142.

A copy of the agreement is available at: www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/WilsonSettlement.pdf

A copy of the ACLU’s Oct. 8 letter to the Wilson County Board of Education is available at: www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/WilsonLetter.pdf

Additional information about the ACLU of Tennessee is available at: www.aclu-tn.org

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