In January of 2013, World Changers of Florida, Inc. held Bible distributions at a number of public high schools in Orange County, Florida. No student would be forced to take one, but there would be a table set up where interested students could take a copy if they wanted:
This alone could have been illegal, but the Orange County School Board agreed that non-Christian groups could also have a distribution if they wanted.
When the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) called their bluff and planned their own giveaways, they were heavily censored. Many of their books, they were told, could not be given away, including titles such as Sam Harris‘ Letter to a Christian Nation and Ibn Warraq‘s Why I am Not a Muslim.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation didn’t buy their explanations for why the books were censored and filed a federal lawsuit against the district in June of 2013. Before the lawsuit was ruled upon, the district agreed to let the atheists give away whatever books they wanted.
But, for whatever reason, the atheists never bothered to submit a formal request to do a distribution. My assumption here is that, because the giveaway was now open to everyone, they had no need to push this any further. (***Edit***: CFFC’s David Williamson tells me they didn’t do the giveaway because the lawsuit was still ongoing, and they were not notified that the board decided not to censor their materials until after it was too late to participate.)
Then the fun began.
Damn, I love the Constitution.
After all of this, the Orange County School Board is finally — finally! — considering not allowing outside groups to do book distributions:
Worried about facing national ridicule if a Satanic group is allowed to give out coloring books to children, the Orange County School Board moved Thursday toward preventing any outside group from distributing religious materials on campus.
The board discussed the issue during a workshop Thursday. The earliest it could vote to change the policy would be late January or early February, officials said.
“This really has, frankly, gotten out of hand,” said chairman Bill Sublette. “I think we’ve seen a group or groups take advantage of the open forum we’ve had.”
That last statement is just bananas. It didn’t get out of hand at all; Sublette is mad because a non-Christian group took them up on their offer and that was never supposed to happen.
People like him aren’t used to minority groups fighting back — and now that one of them has, he thinks the best option is to shut the whole thing down.
Another board member was much more blunt about the reasons for the potential change:
Well, that’s just too damn bad. Should’ve thought of that before you allowed the Christians to give away Bibles.
Board member Christine Moore also seemed to struggle with the effect of a policy change on Christian groups. “Everyone’s upset about the Satanists and the atheists coming,” she said.
I spoke with David Williamson of the CFFC and he told me (via email) what he thought about all of this:
“Our members, who are also concerned parents of students in Orange County Public Schools, are pleased the school board has finally realized they have a gaping hole in their policy. We expect they will be able to reach a solution that keeps them out of court and focusing on teaching students instead of propping up religious propaganda. It is quite hilarious that Satan might just be the one to shut down the forum for the Christians. I’m not sure that helps as much in the long run in regards to the true believers.”
Williamson also coined a perfectly appropriate phrase for all this: Lucien’s Law. It’s like the nuclear option of church/state separation cases. When nothing else works, count on Satanists to settle the matter!
Speaking of which, I asked Lucien Graves what he preferred: Being able to distributing his books or not being able to because there was a blanket ban on such giveaways:
Either outcome — whether we are allowed to distribute our materials or all religious materials are banned — is preferable to the worst-case scenario: an open forum in which Evangelicals enjoy the sole privilege of propagandizing and proselytizing.
We were clear from the beginning that The Satanic Temple does not believe that religious proselytizing is appropriate in schools. We viewed our efforts to participate in the open forum as a counter-indoctrination effort, giving the event an educational, comparative religions-type, air. To have a single religious voice represented, we feel, gives the impression that a particular religion enjoys special privileges, unique deference, and has managed to co-opt the institutional authority of the schools. We would not want to distribute our materials if no other religious groups were representing theirs. We can view either of the two outcomes as a win.
I also asked him what it meant to him that it took Satanists to (possibly) reverse the policy:
A lot of local media in Florida had reached out to me to ask about what it is, exactly, The Satanic Temple believes. On the one hand, I want people to understand that most of what they think they know about Satanism is merely witch-hunt folklore. On the other hand, in a situation like this, it should also be realized that our beliefs are irrelevant. It simply isn’t up to the school board to filter or judge religious opinion. The very first question they should have considered when the idea of an open forum first surfaced is whether or not they were willing to accommodate all and any religions. This was their most basic duty.
We put together our materials, submitted them for review, and we have volunteers prepared to moderate our open distribution should the forum take place. We went through all of this effort because we gave the School Board the benefit of assuming that they understood and considered the broader implications of their open forum policy when they moved to initiate it. We assumed they understood that such an open forum would necessarily be open to multiple viewpoints.
A decision to reverse the policy lays bare, to all appearances, the cold fact that the school board never intended the “open forum” to be truly open at all. I think it strongly implies that the school board was willing to pander to a specific religious group. I think it calls into question the school board’s very competence, and raises questions about their general understanding of their public duties.
In case you’re curious, the new policy, if adopted, would include this phrase about outside party giveaways:
Materials of a denominational, sectarian, religious, political and partisan nature shall not be permitted to be distributed.
At this point, it’d really be the best option for the district.
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)