For as long as anyone can remember, South Iron R-1 School District in rural Missouri gave Gideons International exclusive access to students in fifth-grade classrooms. The missionaries were allowed to come in, give a short presentation and hand out Bibles to the children.
No one really objected until 2005, when a parent saw the Bible her daughter brought home had a signature line under the declaration: "My Decision to Receive Christ as My Saviour."
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri sued the school district on behalf of four families later that year.
School board members ignored their attorneys' advice that continuing the distribution would likely be unconstitutional, and instead voted to "pretend this meeting never happened, and to continue to allow the Gideons to distribute Bibles as we have done in the past."
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry issued a preliminary injunction in 2006 and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in 2007.
Removing the Gideons and their Bibles from public school classrooms, the court confirmed, did not violate the missionaries' free speech rights.
The school district went back to the drawing board. The written policy it came up with, drafted by the Religious Right legal group Liberty Counsel, was struck down Tuesday by Judge Perry.
"The undisputed evidence shows," Perry wrote in Roark v. South Iron R-1 School District, "that both the old practice and the new policy were undertaken for the purpose of promoting Christianity and they have the effect of endorsing religion to impressionable elementary school students."
It was clear to Judge Perry that this new policy was just a sham.
The School District claims the new policy creates a fair open forum; it's just that no other groups want to reach these children.
I find that hard to believe. Remember what happened in Albemarle County, Va., in 2006? Liberty Counsel had pushed the school district into allowing religious messages to be distributed through the "backpack mail" system used in elementary schools.
Conservative Christian parents flipped when a Pagan group used the system to advertise a multi-cultural holiday program at a local Unitarian Universalist church. They (and conservative Christian teachers) flipped again when an Atheist group tried to advertise its summer camp.
They fought for an "open forum," got it, and then tried to shut out any differing viewpoints.
I imagine that's what would have happened here. South Iron's new policy instructs school administrators to allow all material that's not, among other things, "obscene" or would "disrupt" the school. Individual administrators would presumably be given free rein to define those terms.
Liberty Counsel Executive Director Mat Staver says the school district will appeal. He told the Associated Press that "the court has clearly misread the First Amendment and the cases regarding free speech."
The 8th Circuit should uphold Judge Perry's second injunction. Courts have been "especially vigilant" in protecting children from religious coercion in public schools, and this decision is another win for those children's religious liberties.