Students free to give out Bibles

Sunday, January 26, 1997

If the Gideons provide Bibles to students, may students give them out in
school?
— Harvey Daily, Spartanburg, S.C.


Yes. Generally, students have the right to distribute
religious literature on public school grounds. The school, however, may impose
reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.


A public school in northern California, for example, allows students to
distribute literature to their classmates. But the distribution must take place
before or after classes begin, and it must be done in front of the school
office.


In some school districts, distribution of student literature is confined to a
table placed in a specific location (e.g., outside the library). Whatever the
restrictions, they should be reasonable and must apply equally to all non-school
student literature.


It would be advisable for school policies on distribution of student
literature to include a screening process. Public school officials may not ban
materials because they don't like the religious or political content, but they
may prohibit the distribution of some literature altogether. This would include,
for example, materials that are obscene, defamatory, or disruptive of the
educational environment. Students should be notified quickly of the decision,
and they should have a way to appeal if their literature is banned.


What if the Gideons or other groups wish to come into the school themselves
and distribute their materials to students? According to “A Joint Statement of
Current Law,” a statement endorsed by more than 35 religious and civil-liberties
groups: “Outsiders may not be given access to the classroom to distribute
religious or anti-religious literature.”


The common areas of public schools (e.g., hallways) may be a different
matter. A federal court in West Virginia recently ruled that schools may allow
outside religious groups to make their literature available to students subject
to some restrictions. This particular school had allowed a variety of community
groups, including Little League and Boy Scouts, to leave literature on a table
in one of the school's common areas.


As long as (1.) no outside adults were actually present to distribute the
materials or to see that the students took them, and (2.) a sign made clear that
the materials were not being endorsed by the school, the court ruled that
treating the religious group the same as all other community groups did not
violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. No doubt this issue
will continue to be litigated.


While the question of whether outside groups may be allowed to place their
materials in the common areas of public schools remains unsettled, it is
important to remember that students have the right to distribute
religious literature, subject to reasonable time, place and manner
restrictions.