These Elementary School Students Can Get Free Shoes… but Only If They Accept the Bible, Too October 30, 2014

These Elementary School Students Can Get Free Shoes… but Only If They Accept the Bible, Too

Shoes 4 the Shoeless is one of those Christian non-profits that does something really wonderful: They give out socks and shoes to children who need them.

But there’s a catch:

We include a Christian New Testament in every box of shoes we deliver. Our mission is to provide properly fitting shoes and socks to children in desperate need. The Bibles are a bonus and are not an attempt to proselytize, they’re merely our way of sharing hope with all we encounter.

Riiiiight. A bonus gift no one asked for… but whatever. It’s their organization. They can do whatever they want.

The problem is when they make appearances at public schools to give away socks and shoes… and Bibles. Which they’ve been doing at several districts in the Dayton, Ohio area.

Given the age of the students, there’s every reason to believe they’d be coerced into accepting the shoes (and Jesus) or at the very least think their schools are promoting Christianity. This seems like a very blatant violation of church/state separation and could result in a lawsuit against the districts.

Two weeks ago, at the request of a reader, I sent a letter to the legal counsel for the Dayton Public Schools informing them of the problem, asking whether they were aware that this was a faith-based group, and requesting a response.

What I heard back wasn’t very promising:

The simple answer to your question is that our involvement with Shoes 4 the Shoeless does not violate the establishment clause. The legal review of their operation consistently finds that they are appropriate under Supreme Court precedent. Schools and other public institutions remain religiously neutral with parents or legal guardians giving written consent for a student’s participation. Shoes 4 the Shoeless is meeting a critical material need for the disadvantaged youth we serve in a completely non-discriminatory way and legal way.

I sympathize with the last line there, but no school should be participating in a Bible giveaway regardless of what else surrounds it, optional or not.

If Shoes 4 the Shoeless didn’t hand out the Bible during their events, I’d have no problem with it. But they’ve made it very clear that their generosity comes with strings attached.

The question is: Do they care more about giving these kids proper footwear or preaching to them? Because they could easily do the former without the latter.

Now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has stepped in, sending the district’s superintendent their own warning letter. (Attorney Rebecca Markert sent similar letters to other districts in the area, too.)

It should go without saying that Shoes 4 the Shoeless‘ secular mission is laudable. However, the religious message they have chosen to embed therein is problematic; it usurps parental authority, places the District in a precarious constitutional position, and ultimately circumscribes the organizations reach [sic].

It is unfortunate that Shoes 4 the Shoeless view public schools, particularly elementary schools, as ripe territory for recruitment. Parents understandably become nervous when outside adults take an over-keen interest in handing religious materials to their young children without parental knowledge or permission. Parents have the right to direct the religion, or non-religious, upbringing of their children, not public schools not religious organizations who mask their motivations in charity.

FFRF is asking the districts to let them know how they plan to remedy this situation.

Just to be clear, no one is opposed to a group — even a Christian group — giving shoes to those who need it. That’s a wonderful thing. But when proselytizing is part of the package, it’s up to the district to say no.

What’s amazing to me is that the non-profit refuses to help these children unless they can give away Bibles in the process, as if their charity is worthless if they can’t put a Christian stamp on it.

At the same time, it’s easy to criticize FFRF for fighting this battle; even though they’re right, it means kids will end up not getting new shoes.

So I’ll just put this out there: If the districts in question agree to stop allowing the Christian proselytizing, I’ll do everything in my power to raise enough money through this site for another group to buy and distribute shoes for those students. I’ll chip in, too.

Personally, I wish Shoes 4 the Shoeless would just agree to set aside the Bibles when they’re working with public schools, since they already have the whole process down to a science. But I guess being motivated by their faith isn’t enough; they have to dangle it in front of children (and parents) who just need the footwear and wouldn’t dream of rejecting the offer.

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