An attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national organization that acts to protect the principal of separation of church and state, sent a letter (pdf) January 6, 2016 to Delta County School Superintendent Caryn Gibson and Delta County School Board President Pete Blair warning of the potential legal consequences of continuing to ignore the ongoing proselytizing and harassment of students over religion in Delta County schools.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote that the on-campus Gideon Bible giveaway a student documented in Delta Middle School’s library during class hours on December 18, 2015 violates the U.S. Constitution. School Superintendent Caryn Gibson has tried to defend the giveaway by saying the district’s “open forum” policy for non-curricular literature distribution permits the bible giveaways.
But Seidel lists three reasons why the District’s policy doesn’t provide legal cover for the bible distribution.
In-School Proselytizing is Not Permissible
“First,” Seidel writes, “[I]t is unconstitutional for public school districts to permit the Gideons International to distribute bibles as part of the public school day. Courts have held that the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited.” Seidel cites two significant U.S. court rulings that have upheld this principle.
“Second, even when distribution of religious materials is done passively — from a table of some other fixed location — courts have ruled that distribution may be unconstitutional,” he writes, citing 2009 8th Circuit Court case Roark v. South Iron R-1 School District.
“Third,” Seidel writes,
“…if Delta Schools maintains this passive distribution policy and continues to assert that it allows the Gideons to prey on other people’s children, we [will] formally request permission to distribute FFRF literature in March. We will also contact other potentially interested organizations, including the Satanic Temple, to alert them to this unique opportunity. We already have local volunteers willing to set up the distribution.” [Italicized emphasis appears in the original letter.]
Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, a western slope secular advocacy and church-state watchdog group, is among those ready to distribute literature to Delta Middle School students. The group recently created a colorful, new age-appropriate brochure about atheism titled “Its Okay to Not Believe in God!” (pdf) which they are eager to deploy in schools with open forum policies, like Delta County’s.
FFRF Sued Over Same Issue in Florida, and Won
FFRF has confronted these kids of in-school bible giveaways and “open forum” policies before, and won.
On June 12, 2013, FFRF sued the Orange County, Florida school district over a very similar “open forum” policy the district cited in response to protests over an in-school bible giveaway similar to the one at Delta Middle School. When FFRF asked to distribute its own literature at the same school, and the Satanic Temple asked to distribute their childrens’ coloring book and fact sheets, the school district refused to distribute their literature. FFRF then sued the district. The Orange County school district spent two years and $86,000 trying to contest the lawsuit before finally giving up and voting in February, 2015 to ban distribution of religious materials of any kind in District schools — the very remedy FFRF had originally asked for.
Seidel lists other religious violations reported at Delta Middle School, including the school making all students watch a religious play about the baby Jesus (even students who protested it), and a teacher named Mrs. Charlesworth, who in December, 2014, reportedly told her students she was Christian and that “people who aren’t Christians are the bombers.” When a student protested the statement, Mrs. Charlesworth said she felt “it was her duty to teach the class about Christianity” and then harassed and ridiculed the student in front of the entire class. When the student’s parent contacted the school about the incident, the school “investigated” and concluded Mrs. Charlesworth didn’t do anything wrong, but immediately moved the student to a different class. The student reported that other teachers at the school have continued to harass her, including a drama teacher, Mr. Dunham, who according to Seidel’s letter “runs or ran the ‘Children’s Ministry’ at the Thunder Mountain Church of Christ in Delta.”
Two DMS teachers also reportedly lead students in prayer in one of the school’s classrooms every Wednesday morning, offering free doughnuts to lure kids to attend the sessions. Mr. Dunham is also one of the teachers who regularly leads the on-campus student prayer sessions.
Next Move is on Delta County School District
FFRF told Delta County School officials that if true, all of these allegations amount to constitutional violations, and asked for a prompt reply about how they intend to correct the violations and prevent them in the future. WCAF has also written to the district superintendent and the Delta County School Board notifying them of the problems with proselytizing, religious harassment and peer bullying occurring at DMS as a result of their apparent endorsement of Christianity on campus, and warning that these are violations of separation of church and state, but have only gotten a canned response from the superintendent saying district policy allows Gideon Bible giveaways.