Wednesday, April 23, 2008
NEW ORLEANS —
A federal judge ordered a public school system to stop allowing in-school Bible giveaways, saying the practice violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.
“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 in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board.
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.
Defense attorney Christopher M. Moody said late Tuesday that the school board decided to appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.
“We think our chances on appeal are very good,” he said.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit 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 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.
Moody said the school board was working on a policy along the lines of the one cited by Barbier, but it was still being developed. But, he said, the board believes the current policy is legal.