Monday, July 30, 2012

Muhlenberg County Schools and the Gideon Problem (Part 2)

On July 25, I sent an email to Muhlenberg County School Superintendent Dale Todd asking him to clarify the district's new policy on the distribution of materials in schools by the Gideons and other religious groups, as originally explained to me by Board of Education member Don Richey.  My phone call to Mr. Richey was the result of stumbling across the Board of Education Meeting minutes from May 14 and noticing the Board's unanimous vote to support and collaborate with the Gideons--an action that raises some very serious Establishment Clause concerns.

Here is the Superintendent's unedited response:

Ms. Lamb,

In previous years Gideon's were allowed into the schools to distribute Bibles to 5th grade students who wanted one. This was found to be a violation so in October the board announced that this would no longer be allowed. However the board requested I research any way in which non profit organizations could be legally allowed to distribute literature to students and or parents. 

There is no policy related to the May motion. The board voted to allow non profit organizations to be allowed in school during open houses and after school events such as family reading night. If an organization request an opportunity to distribute literature, this is the time designated by the board that it would be allowed and would not disrupt instructional time.

I hope this helps answer questions you have about the board action.

I wasn't surprised that the new policy remains unwritten, unannounced, and vague--despite the fact that Board of Education member Don Richey had mentioned this week's back-to-school open houses as one of the "designated times" when the Gideons and other groups would be able to distribute materials.

This morning I sent the Superintendent a letter outlining what I see as the obvious problems with the district's new policy. 

Dear Mr. Todd:
I appreciate your response regarding the distribution of materials in Muhlenberg County Schools by the Gideons International and other organizations.  I am now clear that there is no written, official policy on the matter; rather, there is an unofficial, unwritten policy that the Gideons and other nonprofit organizations may now request in advance permission to distribute materials at school open houses, reading nights, and other unspecified after-school events.

The purpose of this letter is to encourage you and the Board of Education not to implement this new policy, and to keep not only instructional time, but all school events, entirely free of proselytizing by religious groups.
I believe that the new policy as described to me by both you and Board member Don Richey is constitutionally problematic in several ways:
·    The policy is not set in writing, and is vague; therefore, it could be viewed as too easily subject to alteration in order to accommodate organizations that reflect the personal values of the Board’s members, or to exclude groups that do not align with the Board members’ personal values.

·    The policy has not been announced in the local newspapers, on the Muhlenberg County School District web site, or anywhere else where the public might reasonably learn of it, or where nonprofit organizations other than the Gideons might learn of the opportunities it affords them to distribute material.

·    The policy as described by you and Mr. Richey does not have any discernible secular purpose, as per the first prong of the Lemon test (see Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 1971).  Indeed, the Board’s unanimous approval at the May 14 Board Meeting of a motion to “approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon’s organization,” the fact that the new policy remains unwritten and unannounced, and your own previous statements to local newspapers about the Board abandoning its previous policy only at the urging of the attorney for the school district, could together be interpreted by the courts as evidence that the new policy is not sincere, but rather a sham policy designed to allow the district to continue endorsing a specific religious message (see Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 2000) by providing the Gideons access to local schoolchildren.

Furthermore, the new policy may be incredibly controversial and/or divisive.  In order to implement the new policy, the Board of Education will place itself in the position of having to allow nonprofit organizations whose missions and literature are likely to be deemed offensive by many Muhlenberg County parents.  These organizations could potentially include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Sacred Earth Alliance (neo-pagan), American Atheists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, of which I myself am a member.  Please review the enclosures, which include some sample “nontracts” that the Freedom from Religion Foundation distributes, as well as articles describing two different situations (in Buncombe County and Brunswick County, North Carolina) in which Boards of Education halted their plans to allow any religious literature on school property, rather than opening the door to pagan literature being distributed to students.
Please share this letter with the Board of Education.  I ask you to provide me with a written response as to whether the district intends to continue with its new policy.

Suzanne Lamb

A note about the enclosures referenced in the letter: while I can't reproduce the Freedom from Religion Foundation "nontracts," they are available for purchase here.  The Asheville Citizen-Times article about the Buncombe County, North Carolina controversy is available only as a paid service, but a relevant blog post that I also included with my letter can be read here.  An article and a blog post describing the situation in Brunswick County, which were among the enclosures, are available here and here.

The situation in Buncombe County, North Carolina played out this past spring.  Either the Muhlenberg County Board of Education and Superintendent didn't hear about it, or they felt that their actions were unlikely to generate a similar response. 

Let me be clear:  I don't think the ideal outcome is for the schools to have a slew of different groups showing up to distribute literature at every school function--and I'm not sure that having to compete with pagans and Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses and atheists is what the Gideons have in mind.  If our Board of Education wants to remain neutral on matters of religion, its best bet is not to let any groups use school events for religious proselytizing. 

I can only hope our Board members see the light.


  1. What's your point?

  2. Do your children attend Muhlenberg County Public Schools? If not, I don't see that this pertains to you!

  3. It pertains to everyone. A public school cannot be allowed to sling religious propaganda of any sort. If you want your children subjected to religion while receiving and education, you're more than welcome to send them to a religious PRIVATE school.

  4. I can only hope our Board members see the light.

    Then spake JESUS again unto them, saying, I am the LIGHT of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in DARKNESS, but shall have the LIGHT of LIFE.

    1. No matter what they believe they have to follow the law.

  5. God forgive those who have blindly turned away and have become part of the majority that the prophecies tell us about. You have simply fallen into a religious trap that satan has set and you will reap exactly what you sow. Darkness does not exist except with the absence of light, therefore, to say you believe in no religion is a blatant lie to cover up that you DO believe in something. I will believe in what I choose and pray for those who say they love the empty nothingness that eats away at their souls. Good luck with that!!!

  6. What is basic to all societies of our world today? Marriage, family, government, economic, educational and religious institutions have provided the basic social structure and organization needed in complex civilizations of today. As imperfect as these basic institutions are, they are the foundation of all cultures throughout history. The stronger these institutions, the stronger the society. Regardless of personal choice concerning religion, we should give respect to the fact of its importance and influence throughout time. It has taken countless years and lives to establish the freedoms that our democracy provides for us, yet we still see and feel the conflicting issues of personal rights all around us. I am sorry that religious people sometimes do not behave in the manner that Christianity teaches, but I also see Christians who feel discriminated against when it seems EVERYTHING people do or say is fine, UNLESS they are expressing religious beliefs. Christians, like any other group, have rights. Is it not the same belief of CHOICE, EQUALITY, RESPECT and LOVE towards others taught in Christianity that provided the framework of democracy that allows us all to CHOOSE our lifestyles? No, public education is not the place to teach A particular religion or belief, but public schools in the proper context do have an obligation NOT to AVOID teaching the power and influence religion has had and always will have in all cultures of the world. Suzanne, I respect your intelligence and admire your Decision to live "outside of normal", but honey, many Christians feel they also live outside of normal IF they truly attempt to follow the teachings of Christ. We all have our battles in life's journey, must make our choices with careful consideration, and know when we look in the mirror at the end of the day we have done our best to try to help someone along the road, and have tried to avoid hurting them if we could not help them. Wish you happiness. :-)

  7. We don't need more Christians, what we need is more compassion.