FILER — A decision to allow an international Christian organization to distribute Bibles last week after school hours at Filer Intermediate School has sparked concerns among some parents and community members.
An announcement was made over the school intercom early last week about Gideons International having Bibles available if students were interested, Filer School District Superintendent John Graham said Tuesday.
The distribution happened either Nov. 12 or 13, Graham said, and it was voluntary for students to participate. The Gideons typically come to Filer schools every other year.
In the days that followed, Graham heard concerns from parents and community members, including comments circulating on Facebook.
The Times-News left a message Nov. 20 at Gideons International’s headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., but didn’t receive a response.
The Bibles were available in the cafeteria at Filer Intermediate School, which serves fourth- through sixth-graders. Graham said having the distribution off campus would have been a safety concern because students would have to cross busy streets to get there.
Now, the school district may not allow the Gideons back at Filer schools — “definitely, not on school property,” Graham said. “We’re not trying to shut them down completely,” he added, but said they won’t be allowed “if we can’t come up with a reasonable plan that’s safe for all students.”
Gideons International is a group of “business and professional men and their wives dedicated to telling people about Jesus through associating together for service, sharing personal testimony, and by providing Bibles and New Testaments,” according to the organization’s website. “While we are often recognized for our work with hotels, we also place and distribute Scriptures in strategic locations so they are available to those who want them, as well as to those who may not know they need them.”
The Times-News reached out to the Idaho State Department of Education for insight about whether third-party groups are allowed to distribute Bibles or other religious materials on school campuses. The bottom line: It’s a complex legal issue.
There aren’t references in Idaho Code about this topic specific to public kindergarten through 12th-grade campuses. And schools often let outside groups use their facilities after hours.
Idaho Code, though, does state: “no sectarian or religious tenets or doctrines shall ever be taught in the public schools” and “no books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used or introduced in any schools.”
During the 2016 state legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow religious texts — including the Bible — to be used in public schools for reference purposes, but students wouldn’t be required to use them. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed the bill over concerns it would violate the Idaho Constitution.
Some courts across the United States have ruled on distributing Bibles at public schools. On its website, the Anti-Defamation League — a national civil rights nonprofit — writes: “Courts have uniformly decided that Bibles from third parties cannot be distributed in public elementary schools. And the vast majority of courts have decided that Bibles cannot be distributed in public middle or high schools, as well.”
That wouldn’t necessarily stop a group, though, from distributing Bibles near a school campus, such as from a public sidewalk.
Having Gideons pass out Bibles to school children isn’t anything new. “It’s something that’s gone on since the dawn of time,” Graham said.
He said he recalls when he was a teacher in Boise about 40 years ago, the Gideons went directly into classrooms.
“That obviously has changed since then.”