Sometimes being the Arizona State Director of American Atheists requires direct activism. On occasion, I receive complaints about violations of church and state that I have to address. Most recently the mother of a student that attends Sahuarita High School contacted me to let me know that there was an outside group handing out Bibles on the grounds of the high school. Her son was intercepted on his way to the bus loading area and handed a small book with a “cutesy” locker picture on the cover. Obviously, the book was specially published for handing out to students. She sent me pictures of the book and an annotated map of where the violation took place. She also included the names of the principal, the superintendent, and an assistant superintendent. She was afraid to bring up the situation because of possible repercussions and that’s why she contacted me. It’s too bad that the situation occurred in the first place, but it gives me the opportunity to take action. For one thing, it gives me a chance to dust off the letterhead stationery provided by the American Atheists. She gave me all the information I needed: the day, the time, pictures of the material, maps, and the names and mailing addresses of the folks I needed to contact. Perfect!
The first thing I did was look at other similar situations and the resulting court decisions. It is clear that handing out religious materials in school and on school grounds by outside groups is illegal. It is less clear when the distribution is done by students attending the school. There are gray areas, of course. Can the outside group stand on the sidewalks near the school? Are the sidewalks public or are they on school property? This whole situation reminds me of a couple of kids playing “I’m not touching you” games in the back of the family SUV. Whether or not it is legal in a particular case, there are several reasons that distribution of religious material by outside organizations on school grounds is a bad idea:
- Students might not realize that the school itself is not endorsing a religious message. School officials must take affirmative steps to make certain that students understand this.
- Students that reject the religious material in front of other students may confront peer pressure, coercion, and ostracism.
It is possible that a religious group, in its zeal, may harass students and force material and views upon the students.
In addition, parents have the right to decide what religious training their child receives. Teachers and administrators are limited in what and how they teach. Outside organizations cannot be held to the same government standards and parents have no control. Once a student climbs on the bus or disappears through the gates of the schoolyard, the parents should be safe in the belief that their children are free of religious proselytization until they step back off the bus or leave the school grounds.