Saturday, February 26, 2005
The distribution of Bibles by the Gideons International at Steamboat Springs Middle School again has ignited a debate about allowing those not associated with the school district to distribute material in the schools.
Some parents complained that allowing the Bibles to be distributed violated the principle of separation of church and state. Others defended the practice, arguing the Gideons have as much right as any other group to be in the schools.
This issue arose in 2003 when some parents were upset that a representative of an area church was allowed to meet with students at the middle school. That summer, the board amended its policies to make clear who could distribute information in the schools and when and where they could do so.
It is our position that it is not separation of church and state, but School Board policy that is the central issue. Board members maintain that the policy allowing the Gideons and other groups to enter the schools reflects the wishes of a majority of the community. Thus, we feel it important that community members study the policy and ensure they understand what it means.
The policy is available on the school district's Web site, http://sssd.k12.co.us/common/content.asp. The policy is GP-19, "Distribution/posting of Material and Dissemination of Certain Spoken Material."
The section of the policy applicable to the Gideons' situation states that material which is not "unacceptable" may be distributed by people other than students on the grounds of the middle school and high school in a location accessible to students and staff that is chosen by the principal in a non-discriminatory manner. Such material can't be distributed at the elementary schools. It also can't be distributed during class or during lunch.
Supreme Court rulings on religion in schools have made clear that school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities, and that they may not discourage such activities either. Case law also indicates schools may not discriminate against groups based on religion. Thus, if the school district wants to give Routt County 4-H or the Winter Sports Club access to students at school, it must provide the same access to the Gideons or other religious groups.
That's the basis for the district's policy, which allows any group wishing to distribute material in the schools equal access, so long as the material is not unacceptable. Unacceptable material includes that which promotes violence or or is racist, disruptive to class time, libelous, patently offensive or vulgar.
The policy allows corporations to distribute products such as candy and clothing in the schools. It gives equal access to our schools to all religious affiliations, regardless of fundamental extremes. The policy allows Atheists to distribute anti-religious messages and materials. The policy, it seems, would allow Planned Parenthood to distribute condoms or abortion information in the schools. In short, the policy allows for countless scenarios in which controversial organizations are allowed to promote their causes on school grounds. And, it allows those scenarios to take place not only at the high school, but at the middle school as well, where students are at a highly impressionable age and are just beginning to develop the critical thinking skills that will help them form opinions about what they encounter.
We raise these issues not to alarm parents improperly. None of the aforementioned groups, to our knowledge, has ever sought access to Steamboat's schools.
Instead, we raise these issues because the policy purportedly reflects the will of the community, and it is important to be clear about what that means. It means that not only do we embrace having the Winter Sports Club and the Gideons in our schools, but also that we embrace giving other groups -- whose beliefs we may disagree with -- access to our children.