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The ACLU vs. The Gideons

The American Civil Liberties Union protests when Bibles are distributed at public schools — but Muslim prayer and footbaths in schools doesn't seem to bother them.

by
John Stephenson

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July 29, 2009 - 12:01 am

In September 2006, the ACLU filed suit against the South Iron School District in St. Louis, Missouri, to stop the Gideons from providing Bibles to public school students. The Gideons are the oldest Christian business and professional men’s association in the U.S. and have made New Testaments available to students for decades.

The American Civil Liberties Union interprets this as a threat to their absolutist ideal of separation of church and state. They believe the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting Congress from establishing or promoting a religion implies all government agencies, including public schools. They think that allowing religious expression in school is a type of permissive promotion of religion and violates the spirit of the Constitution. The opponents believe the ACLU’s interpretation turns the Constitution upside down and actually stifles free speech.

The ACLU has built a reputation of hostility towards Christianity in the public sphere. Their agenda of keeping church and state separated when it comes to this particular religion has been consistent. They filed lawsuits against valedictorians mentioning the name of Jesus in their speeches, Ten Commandments displays at court houses, public officials closing their prayers in Jesus’ name, and war memorials in the shape of crosses. Their stance against the Gideons has a long history.

But one thing is not consistent in the ACLU’s quest for separation of church and state. Take a careful look at the ACLU’s cases — double standards are plentiful.

The religion almost exclusively litigated against is Christianity.

The ACLU has actually supported other religions doing the very things they fight against when Christians do them.

The ACLU fought for the installation of footbaths in a public school in Detroit to accommodate Muslims.

Alarms sounded from the ACLU when a coach bowed his head for a student led pre-game prayer, though there was never a peep heard when a school in Michigan taught Muslim prayers and required bowing to Mecca and role playing.

The irony of the ACLU stance on separation of church and state is how it negatively affects free speech.

No one advocates for government to promote a religion, but a line needs to be drawn. Using the Constitution as a tool to silence a valedictorian from expressing religious views surely has our founding fathers rolling in their graves. The same suppression of rights happened to the Gideons.

Instead of the protector of rights, the ACLU is becoming America’s number one opponent of free speech.

In the case of the ACLU against the Gideons in South Iron, Judge Catherine Perry in December of 2008 issued an order specifically prohibiting distribution of the Bible, and the Bible alone, after calling it an “instrument of religion.”

She said the district’s neutral treatment of literature is unacceptable, because it would allow the distribution of the Bible. Matthew Staver argued the case before the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis on behalf of the school district. The judge said veto power must be provided to veto religious, but not secular, literature.

According to Staver, Perry’s ruling legislated that a “private third party (like the ACLU)” had the right to veto the distribution request of the private applicant (in this case, the Gideons).

Staver said the Constitution simply doesn’t allow the Bible to be singled out, like contraband, for special penalties.

How ironic [Staver said] that in America, until recent times, the Bible formed the basis of education, and now its mere presence is radioactive in the opinion of some judges,” he said. “The founders never envisioned such open hostility toward the Christian religion as we see today in some venues. To single out the Bible alone for discriminatory treatment harkens back to the Dark Ages. America deserves better. Our Constitution should be respected, not disregarded. The Quran is OK, and other kinds of religious texts; just not the Bible. The Bible alone is impermissible in the public school,” he said.

Now, the decision has been overturned.  This is good news if you believe free speech should not be limited by absolutist ideology.

On July 16, 2009, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the South Iron School District and upheld the right of the district to establish an open forum for distribution of materials on school property. Under the policy, secular and religious material can be distributed by any group, including the Gideons.

Matt Staver of the Liberty Council sums it up:

“Well, the court ultimately reversed that. Now this new equal access policy will go into effect,” he explains. “Under this policy, individuals may apply to distribute secular or religious literature on school grounds during school time. It’s not going to be distributed in the classroom, but it’s certainly available for students who willingly want to receive the literature.”

I predict the ACLU will keep pushing the issue on the taxpayer’s dime to the next level. The question remains: where do we draw the line between free expression and the concept of separation of church and state?

When speech is stifled in the name of protecting it, something is wrong.

John Stephenson blogs at Stop the ACLU.
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