April 16, 2015
By David Lee
OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – Oklahoma’s attorney general is helping public schools give students “religious literature,” despite an atheist group’s threat to sue if schools keep allowing the Gideons to hand out Bibles.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt on Tuesday sent a letter to the state’s school superintendents, citing letters sent to them by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“Typically, FFRF seeks to use threats of litigation in order to silence American citizens’ exercise of their religious liberties in their correspondence,” Pruitt wrote. “In this instance, their threats revolve around whether Oklahomans have the right to distribute religious literature in a school. I am therefore writing to make clear that it is in fact legal for schools to allow the dissemination of religious literature and that I will take a stand to defend the religious freedom of Oklahomans.”
Pruitt said school districts can allow private citizens to hand out religious literature, and that districts need to “simply enact a neutral policy” allowing “equal access” for anyone to do it.
“The school board just needs to craft a policy that takes into account several important factors under the law,” Pruitt wrote. “For example, the policy should address where distribution can take place, whether to allow the literature in all schools or only for certain grade levels, and what time of the day it can occur.”
Pruitt said he was concerned that “anti-religion groups” may “threaten and intimidate educators,” and asked the superintendents to inform his office of any such threats.
“We are organizing training for stakeholders in our educational system to clarify the laws and how to defend your constitutional freedoms,” the letter said. “As we are developing the curriculum, we would like input from you on specific issues which may need to be covered.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Andrew L. Seidel wrote to Eufaula Public Schools Superintendent Jeannette Smith in February about members of Gideons International being allowed to hand out copies of the New Testament.
“We understand that you probably had no prior knowledge of this distribution,”Seidel wrote. “The Gideons operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards. They advise their members to seek permission at the lowest level of authority … it is unconstitutional for public school districts to permit the distribution of Bibles as part of the public school day.”
Federal courts have “uniformly held” the practice is illegal, the letter stated.
“This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags,” Seidel wrote. “In allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles to elementary school students, the district is impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its ‘stamp of approval’ on the religious messages.”
“Conspicuously absent from the group’s claims is the fact that courts have upheld the right of citizen groups to share religious literature at public schools just like non-religious groups, such as the 4-H Club or Cub Scouts,” Pruitt said in a statement. “I will not stand idly by while out-of-state groups challenge the liberties of Oklahoma citizens.”
In June 2014, FFRF asked the Midlothian Independent School District in North Texas to remove a Christian plaque from the entrance of an elementary school.
The school district initially covered up the plaque, but reversed course two months later and uncovered it. The school district said its attorney advised that it would lose in court if the plaque remained.
In 2012, the FFRF persuaded the Kountze Independent School District in East Texas to remove religious verses from football game banners. Several cheerleaders then sued the school district and then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened on the students’ behalf.
From Courthouse News.