Can You Hand Out Bibles Near Public Schools? May 1, 2009

Can You Hand Out Bibles Near Public Schools?

This disturbing email comes courtesy of a reader who is also a teacher:

I teach public school at the 8th grade level in Tacoma, WA. Yesterday after school, I noticed a number of older men outside the school handing out Bibles to my 10 to 14-year-old students as they left the building, many of the men were standing in the Bus Zone where a good number of our children had to walk to get on the buses.

Ironically enough, I had just gotten done teaching a lesson in my History class on the Constitution. I don’t see how this can be legal, but I am curious.

I am, too.

What steps should this teacher take?

Are those men allowed to be there?

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  • Sarah TX.

    I saw this all the time when I was in middle/high school, although the men would be careful to stand just off school grounds or even in the street right by the bus area or the crosswalk where children crossed the street. The cops were called on them a few times (because the teachers thought they were selling drugs) but after awhile we just left them alone.

    I doubt these men are school sanctioned, but I can’t see how what they’re doing is illegal. Then again, I’m not a lawyer. I’m sure if the principal was notified next time he or she would ask them to move along.

  • beckster

    They’re gideons. They used to do this at my school back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Same guys who put the bibles in the hotel rooms.

  • Mountain Humanist

    Generally speaking, any outside group has to have permission of a school before engaging in any such activity (note policy may vary from state to state or even county to county).

    If the school has allowed these men (they are most likely members of Gideon’s Intl. the hotel Bible people), then they should also invite Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to pass out tracts as well as Jains, peyote-spiritualist, Satanists, Zoroastrian, Mormons, Gnostics, Voodooists, etc.

    Of course, that won’t happen. This is a likely case of an administrator caving into or collaborating with a fundamentalist community of believers.

    It seems to be prima facie unconstitutional.

  • This happened to me when I was in elementary school. They were in the playground too, so it was really creepy.

    unfortunately, I don’t know how (il)legal this is.

  • urlnotfound

    They did this at my kid’s school a couple of times. When we called the school we found out they were not only sanctioned by the principal, they were INVITED to be there. They stood between the school doors and the buses.

    After a few dozen phone calls and a meeting with the Superintendent and a half-dozen high ranking people at the school district and the principals, that has never happened again, and the principal was replaced.

  • IANAL, but I expect the legal question turns on whether they are on or off school property. AFAIK, anyone can stand on a public street and pass out almost any kind of literature (though there might be an issue to be made of giving things to minors sans parental consent).

  • David D.G.

    I wonder if that community would be so complacent about this sort of activity if Muslim groups were handing out copies of the Koran, or LaVeyan Satanists were handing out literature of their own. You can pretty well bet that they’d be strongly resisted by most communities, even those not necessarily fundamentalist-dominated. But I’ll bet that this, while clearly flouting the spirit of the law, is probably legal (or only borderline at worst) and will not even be seriously challenged.

  • Tom

    It’s illegal for a public school to push religion or for its employees to push religion on their students or during their work hours; it’s not illegal for people who are not employed by the school to push religion when they happen to be physically at the school, and it’s not illegal for the school to allow them to do so as long as the school permits everyone to do so equally (including atheists) and doesn’t endorse the activity in any way.

    The school could make sure they remain off school property, but could not do so on the basis of religion, and would have to do so equally to all people performing similar activities, including atheists. It could be done, for example, for safety reasons. (Back in the dark ages when I was in school, adults not affiliated professionally with the school were required to register with the office and their presence was limited to specified, acceptable activities such as visiting a teacher or visiting a student, and if the latter they were required to be family or a legal guardian.) The school can not do anything if they remain off school property and give bibles to students who happen to be passing.

    I would encourage the school to ensure the safety of their students and otherwise keep out of it.

  • Nick

    The local government might have some kind of ordinance regarding handing out materials on the street. It’s generally not illegal to do this on public property. However, if the men are on school property, then they are subject to trespassing laws. Here is an news story on a similar situation:

  • Ender

    Unless you think the bible is somehow unsuitable for children to read, then how can it be illegal to give away books? Or do you thing schools should implement a Fahrenheit 451 policy on books?

    Oh… I see. You think that the bible *is* unsuitable for children, given all the sex, rape, incest, polygamy, genocide, racism, ignorance, and so on in the bible.

    You may have a point. But then again the next time some Christian appears on TV to vilify homosexuals, wouldn’t it be nice if the kids turned ’round and said “Why is he so hung up on gay people? Jesus was all about opposing divorce, he never mentioned gays. That guy’s got three ex wives. That guys hasn’t read the book he says he believes in!”

    Don’t ban the book – just make the kids read it from start to finish.

  • Hank Bones

    I wouldn’t want random adults handing anything out that close to the schools. Stranger Danger, anyone?
    Sorry, I forgot all the religious are Upstanding Members of the community who wouldn’t do anything to harm the young.

  • I am concerned they were standing in the bus zone. This presents a safety hazard.

  • Pustulio

    As long as they’re off school grounds it’s out of the school’s hands. But I bet if someone joined them and started handing out Korans it would end real quick.

  • What’s your beef with the 1st Amendment, dude? It protects kids from having religion forced on them by schools, but it also protects people who want to publish and distribute religious literature. So unless these bibles are printed on razor sharp paper with cyanide based ink I don’t really think it’s a problem.

  • When I was in grad school, there were people who would stand on the edge of campus and hand out bibles. I always found the most effective response was to smile, accept it, and then (in plain view) throw it on the ground or in the trash.

  • Eruzatide

    I’m surprised you don’t see this more often. When I was a high school freshman we had a man standing, just off school grounds, with a shopping cart full of bibles. He was handing them out to everyone. It wasn’t a big deal though most people just threw them away, or in the case with my circle of friends, burned them to ash with lighters.

  • Eric Cranton

    Nearly the same exact situation happened at my High School. Two elder men from the church across the street, were standing at the bus pickup, handing out pocket-sized bibles.

    Luckily though, the Administration quickly got rid of them.

  • Robin

    The last time someone handed me a free Bible, I took it and tossed it in the nearest visible trash can. Where it belonged.

  • Polly

    Last I checked the US was still a free country. If they aren’t on school property, I don’t see why it would be illegal. Minors can buy magazines and junkfood. It would be hypocritical to bar them from being able to receive literature without parental consent in this case. While I object to the gratuitous sex and violence of the Bible, it’s no worse than TV or video games.

    I would like a lawyer to weigh in. But, I’d be chagrined if my supposition turned out to be false.

    Same goes for the Koran, B.o.M., Veda, Dianetics, etc.

  • Mountain Humanist

    Here’s an informative link from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on this subject:

  • Mountain Humanist

    Apparently, you can’t hand out Bibles after school either, at least according to a federal judge. But, as an early commenter stated, the issue will hinge on whether or not the Gideons are on school property.

    Here’s the link from Fundie Watch.

  • Polly, how do you think that school (or the students’ parents) would react if someone were handing out copies of God Delusion? Or the Anarchist Cookbook? What about Suicide and Attempted Suicide: Methods and Consequences? If they were on school grounds, this is unacceptable.

    As far as legality, no clue, but I imagine it is illegal based on most any laws establishing separation.

  • Vic

    Not illegal, but it’s creepy.

  • Tony

    The first thing the teacher should do is contact her administration and let them know that non-sanctioned adults are on the premises. They can then deal with them in a legal and reasonable way.

  • MrMarkAZ

    “What steps should this teacher take?”

    The teacher ought to know that the first step would be to contact the principal and/or the school attorneys to find out more information.

    If it turns out that the Biblethumpers are on taxpayer-funded property handing out Bibles with the official permission (whether expressly or tacitly given), the next step the teacher should take is to contact a lawyer to determine whether this is in violation of local, state, and federal laws.

    The concern here isn’t the handing out of Bibles, it’s the implication that the school endorses this activity which has no clear secular purpose.

  • If they’re on school property then they’ve crossed a line and should be kindly shown off school property and told to hand out their bibles off school property. If they are in the bus zone where they could be causing a physical danger then they should be told to leave immediately and arrested if they return to the same area (I have zero tolerance for endangering kids safety even inadvertently).

    If they are off school property then nothing can really be done unless they are causing a physical danger such as blocking the sidewalk. Though possibly working with an atheist group to provide trashcans might be an effective countermeasure.

  • This happened to me too, in middle school.

  • This happened to me too, in middle school.

    When I was in middle school they actually let the Gideon’s come in and pass the bibles out in class. Does that date me a bit?

    And yeah, I’ll agree with everyone else. If it was on school property: illegal. Not on school property: legal but really creepy. I wonder if we could use this loophole to our advantage and start handing out pamphlets on atheism.

  • Sure it’s legal. That’s called freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. It would also be legal to pass out copies of your favorite atheist literature, if you are willing to pay to have that done.

  • Doreen

    I don’t know the legality behind it, but it does happen.

    In the school district I live in, the high school and middle school are separated by a shared sports field. I didn’t go to the middle school, but I went to the high school. On several occasions, I remember kids mentioning that there were people in front of the middle school handing out bibles. Now I live in one of the blue parts of PA, so it’s not as if I live in the rural deep south or anything.

    So yeah, it does happen.

    As I scroll up and read some of the comments, I notice people are mentioning middle school a lot. First through eigth, I went to Catholic school, so I can’t say anything from then. I never remembering it happening on high school property. What’s up with targeting middle schools?

  • I remember getting a lime green Gideons Bible in 5th grade. It seems they’re still peddling them even now. Funny how they accuse gay people of recruiting school children.

    If they aren’t actually on school property it’s legal. However somebody should show up and hand out excerpts from The God Delusion or The Satanic Bible. Maybe even hand out cheap copies of The Koran. How much you want to bet there would be a town meeting post haste to address people standing outside the school and giving stuff to the kids?

    The thing is that people think it’s peachy keen when Christianity is being shoved on children without their parents’ knowledge or consent. But when it’s anything else those same Christians start screaming bloody murder. It’s such a double standard they have.

  • flatlander100

    Well, gotta tell ya, as far as proselytizers go, I kind of have a soft spot for these gentlemen. And they are gentlemen. They just stand there [not on school property] and ask if you’d like a copy of the New Testament. No preaching. A smile if you say yes. A smile if you say no. Provided they don’t come on school grounds or into classrooms or halls, I really don’t see a problem. Their confidence that simply placing the book in hands willing to take it will work whatever wonders they hope to work is rather touching.

  • beckster

    Yep, when I “graduated” sixth grade we walked off the stage and were handed a bible from a gideon. That was in the late 1980’s in rural Colorado.

  • stephanie

    I dunno about the legality and I don’t really get up in arms about Gideons in general. But no strangers better try handing random things to my family when they are coming from school or there will be empirical testing of those beliefs about the afterlife…

  • Luther Weeks

    “What steps should this teacher take?”

    Probably illegal but it would be great to suggest that the students read some or all of the bible, even select some passages. There is lots in there not to admire.

  • Will

    I saw them outside of my high school one time and I asked the principal about them. She said that they were off school property, just barely and there was nothing that they could do about it. Me personally I would like to place a trashcan next to them.

  • cathy

    A public school is different from a public forum like a park, because a public school is actually a government agency. Having people hand out bibles on school grounds is more like going to the DMV and being given a bible with your liscense than it is like going to a public park or street and seeing a street preacher. There is a difference between public property and government agency. Kids have a right not to be harrassed at their schools by religious groups.

  • What a student should do is take one of the bibles. Then next day bring it to school, go into a restroom, and set it in a toilet.

  • Gary

    The constitution only says that govt. can’t establish a religion. It was the churches that wanted this. The constitution in no way endorses atheism. And, contrary to what some people want you to believe Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Payne, were not atheist.

    Were these men, at the bus stop, govt. employees? I don’t think so. Were they tax payers who support this school? Most likely. Who then has the right to ask them to leave? A group of parents, yes, but not one parent.

  • I am extremely spiritual and have the right to raise my daughter how I choose. Therefore, I have a problem with the Gideons targeting my child. I think many parents would have a problem if Planned Parenthood was passing out condoms outside the school. Why are the Gideons allowed to pass out Bibles? My daughter is my responsibility… back off! This has gone on WAY too long. It’s time for a class action lawsuit!

  • John

    I saw this once in front of a middle school. My first thought was that these could be child predators posing as christian do gooders. Anyhow, why would grown men be handing out bibles to you children? Shouldn’t they be soliciting the parents.

  • Chelsea

    I’ve been reading your comments on this page and it seems to me this is quite the group of cynics with a great many chips on their shoulders….So what if they receive a Bible, they can read it….they should have a chance to read it. They will be exposed to all kinds of things in their lifetimes, and will be able to make their own decisions. I bet if you ever took the time to talk to one of those Gideon’s you’d find out that they were some of the nicest people (though I certainly can’t speak for all of them) and that they actually care about you and your children. If you’re going to take the time to criticize Christian’s so much, make sure you take a good long look at yourselves first.

  • TXatheist

    Chelsea, I’m at, , why would I want my kid to read that book? Why should they have a chance to read it? If you care about me why can’t you respect me for who I am and not try to give me your literature? Some gideon’s are not nice…

  • Steve

    History is short for His Story (Gods Story).
    It seems that the men were just handing out History books to the young adults. Maybe they should use them for learning. It could change their thinking about how the worlds history changed due to the Bible. Could be better that they find out about the Bible now then later when they find one in a Jail room.

  • Rob

    and if I hand out atheist literature on a sidewalk in front of your church and hand it to eight year olds, you’re cool with that? just checking.

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