The anonymous Colorado Mesa University nursing students who oppose administration plans to hand out Gideon Bibles at their December 11 pinning ceremony are livid at the school’s response to their protest, and have already contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) about their plight.
“We are serious about it,” one of the anonymous complainants said.
Some students opposing the bible handout aren’t Christians, and some of them have no religious bent at all.
Bible handouts at nurses’ pinning ceremonies are normally features of religious institutions of higher learning, like Baptist or Christian colleges. It’s rare for a publicly-funded college or university to highlight a specific religion at a graduation ceremony this way, or for their graduation ceremonies to have any religious component at all, because of federal laws governing the separation of church and state.
The students want to remain anonymous because they’ve already gotten harassment and ridicule for speaking out against CMU’s endorsement of Christianity. They do not want to be put in the position of having to refuse to accept a bible in front of other people because a Catholic hospital is the biggest medical employer in the area, and they feel refusing to take a bible (or failing to be seen picking one up off a table) could negatively impact their ability to get jobs locally. Some of them may continue to have to interact with the same instructors in graduate programs.
Beyond that, the bible handout is more than just unfair to the nursing program’s non-Christian, atheist and agnostic students. It’s most likely illegal, and by allowing bibles to be given out on campus at a school-sponsored function, CMU may be crossing a legal line.
Under U.S. law, publicly-funded schools cannot give the appearance of endorsing any religion.
In a June 19, 2000 Supreme Court, ruling (pdf) in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, the Court wrote:
“[S]chool sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’”
Giving away Christian bibles at an on-campus, school-sponsored event like a pinning ceremony — even if the bibles are simply set on a table for pickup — would give the distinct appearance that the school endorses that religion.
“Outing” the Protesters
Some school staff have claimed that the 31 students of the graduating class had already voted on the matter some time ago, but that’s not the case. A memo nursing students got from staff earlier in the fall listed pinning ceremony requirements and indicated quite clearly that the bible giveaway was a non-negotiable part of the program. Also, the Director of CMU’s nursing program, Debra Bailey, sent out an email only yesterday, November 12, asking all of the students to vote by email on whether the bible giveaway should be part of the ceremony. The problem with this, aside from this vote being taken very late in the game and only under pressure, is that Ms. Bailey made the vote mandatory and ordered all of the students to submit their votes by email, which would of course allow her to “out” all of the protesters.
Is a vote like that fair? “No, of course not,” say the complaining students, who sought an anonymous vote on the matter. This vote seems more like a trap than anything else.
An Easy Fix
There is really no reason for all the hand-wringing, finger-pointing and agonizing that’s going on over this event, by students or staff. There is a very easy way to defuse the whole problem, stop cold any potential threat of litigation against CMU and its instructors and satisfy the upset nursing students 100% percent without inconveniencing anyone or costing anything: Move the Gideon Bible giveaway off campus entirely.
The Gideon volunteer could sit at the Christian coffee bar across 12th Street from CMU with the bibles, and nursing grads can be instructed to go to the coffee bar after the pinning ceremony to get one if they want it. Rather than putting unwilling people in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse a bible or be seen not taking one at the pinning ceremony, just make the books available to all the people who want them at an easily-accessible, comfortable location nearby off campus.
Voila’! Problem solved.
How Far Will CMU Staff Push the Matter?
All that remains to be seen is how far CMU Nursing Program staff are willing to push their luck with this issue, in the face of clear and fairly recent case law on the subject. Staff can insist on keeping the bible giveaway on campus and take their chances with a group of upset students contacting the ACLU and the FFRF, or they can solve the entire problem, placate the students and save CMU and themselves from any legal threat and just move it off campus.
It’s so easy to fix this problem and make everyone happy, but will they?
Given how issues of separation of church and state have played out in Grand Junction in the past, where elected officials have tried to prove a religious point by avoiding the easy, sensible solution and instead choosing expensive, convoluted solutions that cost taxpayers a lot of money, this issue could go either way. If this issue goes the wrong way, though, it could put CMU out on a limb.
Let’s hope that’s not the case with this issue at CMU. Let’s hope that the school administrators choose the simple, sensible solution, and move the bible giveaway off campus. Then they can avoid this thorny problem into the future by learning from it, honoring and respecting the diversity that exists on campus, and steadfastly avoiding any activity that resembles an endorsement of religion on campus from here on out.