Dispatches from the Creation Wars

In yet another court loss for the Tangipahoa Parish school district in Louisiana, a Federal judge has ruled that the schools there cannot allow the Gideons to distribute Bibles to 5th grade students (see full ruling here). The ruling was in response to a motion for summary judgment. In this case, the Gideons were not allowed to go into the classrooms to distribute the Bibles, but were set up outside the principal’s office. The 5th grade teachers were told to inform their classes that they could pick up a Bible there, but also that they did not have to get one. Nevertheless, the judge noted that the peer pressure to take a Bible amounted to de facto coercion:

When time came for “Jane Roe’s” class to get their Bibles, the students were instructed by their teacher that if they did not want a Bible, they should remain with the sixth-grade class. Jane alleges that she felt pressured to get a Bible because of potential teasing and name-calling by her peers if she refused. As a result, she accepted a Bible, and she, like everyone else receiving a Bible that day, was told by the person from the Gideons, “God bless.”…

Jane Roe states that she accepted the Bible because if she did not, her classmates would have “picked on” her. She feared they would call her “devil worshipper,” and that “she don’t [sic] believe in God,” and that she is a “Goth.”

All of this rings quite true to anyone who has spent time in schools. The court then concluded that under the coercion test, the school violated the Establishment clause:

As a result, the Court concludes that the practice undertaken by Loranger Middle School did violate the Establishment Clause. Jane Roe was, in fact, subjected to an unconstitutional element of coercion as she, an impressionable young elementary-age child, experienced pressure to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a
way which establishes religion.

The judge then evaluated the policy under the Lemon test and came to the same conclusion:

The same result follows under the Lemon test. As to the first prong, the Gideons were given access to the elementary school during school hours to distribute Bibles to fifth grade students. The School Board has failed to set forth a secular purpose for this practice, and in that absence, this Court determines that the distribution of Gideon Bibles is “unquestionably religious.” See Berger, 982 F.2d 1160. As for prong two, allowing the Gideons to distribute Bibles under the circumstances in this case evidences a preference towards religion, specifically, Christianity. And as for prong three, the teachers who were required to inquire as to which students want the Bible, and then organize and direct them to the principal’s office, became excessively entangled with religion.

And likewise under the endorsement test. The judge here, like Judge Jones in the Dover case, smartly evaluated the policy under every conceivable test the higher courts might choose to apply. That’s a good way to avoid having one’s rulings overturned.