Bible distribution prompts school board debate
SUMMIT COUNTY – In an effort to resolve the Gideons Bible controversy that erupted in May, the Summit County Board of Education continued to discuss possible changes in district policy at its Wednesday meeting.No decisions were made, however, as school board members attempted to reach some sort of consensus about an appropriate policy to govern literature distribution by outside groups within the schools. In May, representatives of Gideons International were allowed into the middle and high schools to distribute New Testaments.”We’re not of like mind now,” school superintendent Millie Hamner said, referring to the differences in opinion about the issue expressed by school board members.The district’s current policy prohibits only non-curricular material deemed hateful, commercial, political campaign-related or obscene. According to the policy, all other literature is permitted, with the district reserving the right to control the time, place and manner such literature is offered to students.In keeping with this policy, the district allowed the Gideons, a Christian men’s evangelical group, into the schools for the second year to distribute Bibles. The Gideons set up tables at the middle school in the morning, before school started, and at the high school after classes let out. Several parents complained to the school board about what they saw as religious proselytizing being directed at their children. The complaints motivated the board to reexamine its policy with the goal of clarifying the issue before school starts this fall.School district attorney Richard Lyons presented several options to the board on Wednesday about how the district can legally handle outside groups’ requests to distribute literature to schoolchildren. The options ranged from closing the schools to all non-curricular materials and organizations – called a “closed forum” – to keeping the present policy of a “limited open forum” and attaching a disclaimer to all such literature denying any school district endorsement.The legal issue at hand, he explained, is that federal courts have decided that religious material must be treated exactly like all other material. School districts may not legally “advance nor inhibit religion.”The option of prohibiting distribution of all outside literature has been adopted in several schools in Utah, Lyons told the board.”There are schools that are going to a closed forum,” he said. “Because (under an open forum policy) if you have the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, you have to allow the goy, liberal, rainbow whatever.”Other options the attorney presented included holding a specific day or days for outside literature distribution and passing out literature only when parents are present. Lyons encouraged the board to consider the option of keeping the policy as is and simply sending disclaimers home.”This is the situation being urged by courts today,” he said. Board members were unwilling to come out in favor of any of the options, but, with the attorney’s help, were able to narrow down their preferences to continuing with the present policy and distributing outside materials only when parents are present.Board president Jay Brunvand, board treasurer Bob Bowers and board member Stuart Adams all spoke in favor of limiting outside materials as little as possible. Bowers spoke in favor of “keeping it simple” and sending home disclaimers, while Adams and Brunvand both stressed the importance of exposing children to as many ideas as possible.”You’ve got to have the supermarket available to pick from,” Brunvand said.Board members Christine Scanlan, Jon Kreamelmeyer and Sheila Groneman expressed interest in possible modifications of existing policy. “I think we have an obligation to our community to manage (distribution of non-curricular materials),” Scanlan said. “Parents want some control over what comes home.”Although public reaction to the Gideon Bible handout prompted the current debate, discussion among board members touched on all other non-curricular materials. According to the district, more than 50 outside groups regularly request to have their literature distributed to local schoolchildren. Organizations that request to come into the school themselves include the Gideons, the Rotarians, local fire and police departments, the Forest Service and Summit County Youth Baseball. Groups that don’t actually enter the schools, but request to send literature include local arts groups, such as the Summit Concert Band, area preschools, the Big Red Bus and the four area ski resorts.”As a parent, I’ve gotten all of these, and I only wanted about 10 percent of them” Scanlan said. “I’ve been a little concerned with the unmanageable nature of it.” Scanlan went on to say that some of the district’s schools are more selective than others in terms of what can be sent home with students. There was general agreement among the board members that, whatever policy they eventually agree on, it should be uniformly enforced across the district.Hamner said the board plans to continue to explore its options, and she hopes a new, or at least more refined, policy will be in place by the beginning of the new school year.