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Gideon Bibles out of school

•  Breaking Legal News     updated  2008/04/24 09:01

Public schools in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana must stop in-school Bible giveaways to students, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

"Distribution of Bibles is a religious activity without a secular purpose" and amounts to school board promotion of Christianity, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier ruled. That violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state, he wrote.

As requested by both sides, Barbier made a summary judgment based only on the written briefs — something judges may do only if the law is absolutely clear.

But attorney Christopher M. Moody said he thinks the Tangipahoa Parish School Board is likely to ask the 5th U.S. Court of Appeal to overturn Barbier's decision, though he hadn't yet consulted with the board. "We think there's a very good chance" of a reversal, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed the suit for an anonymous family whose daughter said she felt pressured into taking a Bible even though she doesn't believe in God. The girl was called Jane Roe and her father John Roe out of fear of retaliation by schoolmates and neighbors, the ACLU has said.

"Jane Roe states that she accepted the Bible because if she did not, her classmates would have 'picked on' her," Barbier wrote. "She feared they would call her 'devil worshipper.'"

Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU chapter, said, "A child shouldn't have to choose between her family's beliefs and the wishes of school administrators."

Jane Roe was a fifth-grader at Loranger Middle School when The Gideons International visited on May 9, 2007. Principal Andre Pellerin notified fifth-grade teachers that the group would be on campus all day, giving away Bibles outside his office.

His e-mail said, "Please stress to students that they DO NOT have to get a bible," according to Barbier.

However, the judge wrote, even procedures upheld as neutral for secondary school students might be out of bounds for "an impressionable young elementary-age child."

He cited a ruling that upheld a West Virginia county's system of putting both religious and nonreligious material on a secondary school table where school students could walk past it. Grade-school children might not understand that the school board was not endorsing any of the materials, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal said in that case.

At Loranger, the table outside the principal's office also created the impression that the school was endorsing Christianity, Barbier wrote.

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