A federal court gets one right for Missouri
It is encouraging to finally have a federal court dispense a common sense judgment based on law rather than empathy or liberal ideology.
On July 16 the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled in favor of a southeastern Missouri school district by upholding its right to establish an open forum for distribution of materials – like the Bible – on school properties. The Eighth Circuit reversed a lower U.S. District Court’s ruling and held that the South Iron R-1 School District’s new policy should not have been declared unconstitutional by the lower court judge. The Eighth Circuit’s ruling means that school districts may allow secular and religious material to be distributed on school property by any group.
The ruling likely ends a legal battle that began in September 2006 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discovered that the South Iron School District was allowing the Gideons to provide free Bibles to fifth grade students. Federal District Judge Catherine Perry issued an order prohibiting the distribution of any Bible, which she derisively described as an “instrument of religion.” The school district then adopted a written equal access policy that treats the distribution of secular and religious literature outside of class on an equal basis. Outside groups may apply to distribute literature from stationary tables in two designated locations, and literature cannot be distributed in the classroom.
Perry also ruled the school district’s equal access policy unconstitutional, saying that under the policy, the Bible could still be distributed. The ruling presented a novel (an unconstitutional) theory that a private third party (like the ACLU) must have the opportunity to veto the distribution request of the private applicant. The veto power, the judge wrote, must be provided to veto religious, but not secular, literature.
The Eighth Circuit reversed Perry, upholding the school district’s new equal access policy. The Eighth Circuit rejected Perry’s ruling because it would have precluded the school “from ever creating a limited public forum in which religious materials may be distributed in a constitutionally neutral manner.” The Appeals Court stated that “school officials must remain free to experiment in good faith with new policies to accommodate the tensions between educational objectives, … private rights under the Free Exercise Clause, and … the Establishment Clause … (of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).”
“We are pleased that the new equal access policy can finally go into effect,” said Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University Law School in Lynchburg, Va., who argued the case in behalf of the school district. “The Bible cannot be singled out for special penalties like contraband. The Founders never envisioned open hostility toward religious viewpoints.”
It is not known if the ACLU intends to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Eighth Circuit’s decision is a great ruling for public schools and religious organizations because it strikes a balance by ensuring that public schools remain focused on educating students while at the same time allowing the free flow of information – even those from a religious viewpoint. School districts throughout Missouri would do well to copy the equal access policy adopted by the South Iron School District. For Christians, and Missouri Southern Baptists in particular, who oppose coercion when it comes to evangelistic efforts and religious beliefs, also believe that religion should be free to be expressed in the secular realm. We ask for no special treatment, only that our nation remain open and friendly to religion. The Eighth Circuit has given us a fair and level playing field. For that we are grateful.