Bibles in Hamilton County schools stir questions

photo A Bible sits on a student's desk in this file photo.

It all started with a permission slip.

The one Mitzi Yates found among the papers in her fifth-grader's backpack. If she signed it, it would allow him to bring home a copy of the Gideon New Testament from McConnell Elementary. Wary of religious coercion, she asked the school not to send the texts home, even if parents asked for it.

And now, national groups are weighing in on whether such an act is appropriate for a public school, and the Bible could become the next installment in our region's battle over the proper role of religion in the public square.

"I'm not anti-Christian," Yates said. "I almost wish we could have a real solution that wouldn't ban the Gideons or anyone else from visiting and sharing their books of faith. I actually would like to see a range of cultural experience shared with the children."

But school officials say that potential is already in place in schools and that all groups, religious or otherwise, receive equal treatment.

Hamilton County's practice is all-or-nothing when it comes to making outside materials available to students, said school board attorney Scott Bennett. If a principal allows the Boy Scouts to distribute leaflets, then the same privilege must be afforded to the Gideons, Catholic groups or Muslim groups.

"We cannot create a barrier to the distribution of religious literature that is not in place for secular literature," Bennett said. "We have to be viewpoint-neutral."

Bennett said this policy has been previously reviewed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, both groups that are wary of government involvement with religion.

School board member Greg Martin represents McConnell Elementary and said he supports the Gideons' right to distribute Bibles, especially given that McConnell required parental permission.

"No one's trying to usurp the rights of a parent here," he said. "I don't understand how anybody would be upset with parental involvement."

But that permission doesn't negate the constitutional concerns, said Ian Smith, a staff attorney at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"Arguably it's worse because it's involving the school directly in distributing religious materials directly," he said.

Smith said the group routinely receives complaints from parents across the country about the Gideons distributing Bibles at schools.

The Chattanooga area has been ripe for debates over faith, constitutional rights and separation of church and state.

The Hamilton County Commission has been sued for its practice of public prayer at meetings. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit put a stop to certain practices, including elementary Bible classes.

Soddy-Daisy High School halted its pregame prayers over the stadium's loudspeaker after receiving complaints. And in the fall, Ridgeland High School's football coach came under fire for taking players to church-sponsored meals before games, at least one of which included a sermon.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation was involved in all those cases.

Local activist Tommy Coleman, one of the plaintiffs in the county prayer suit, just happens to have a child at McConnell Elementary. He sat in the school lobby one day this week hoping to stop the Gideons from bringing Bibles in. He said he plans to involve the Freedom From Religion Foundation and anyone else who can help keep Bibles out of schools.

"School is a place for learning, and not much else needs to go on there," he said.

Staff writer Louie Brogdon contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree or 423-757-6249.