A citizens group called World Changers of Florida, Inc., has had to fight to bring the Bible back to school, but thanks to a court decision – and in honor of the President Obama-affirmed “Religious Freedom Day” – is once again distributing thousands of copies of the Scriptures to students in the Sunshine State.
For years, World Changers had honored Religious Freedom Day by providing free Bibles to interested students by placing them on tables in Florida schools where they could be voluntarily picked up during non-instructional time.
But in 2009, Florida’s Collier County School officials banned World Changers’ Bible distribution, claiming Bibles do not provide educational benefit to the students and violate the so-called separation of church and state.
Yet with the help of Liberty Counsel, a federal judge ruled in favor of World Changers, permitting the Bible distributions to begin again.
“The First Amendment does not tolerate discrimination against private religious viewpoints because of a mythical wall of separation between church and state,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Equal access means equal access for all viewpoints, including religious viewpoints.”
This past week, on Jan. 16, according to Orlando’s WFTV, World Changers resumed its ministry, distributing over 1,700 free Bibles in 11 Orange County high schools, before returning to Collier County on Jan. 17 to do the same.
Katherine P. Marsh, senior manager of media relations for Orange County Public Schools explained in a memo that the court ruling permits “passive distribution” of religious literature in schools.
“Passive distribution means the Bibles may be placed on one unmanned table for distribution in a location where students normally congregate during non-instructional time,” Marsh’s memo states. “The representatives may only be allowed to replenish Bibles if they run out and must remove any undistributed literature at the end of the distribution day.”
The administrator of the World Changers website added, “All the groups place their information on tables in a common area near the cafeteria, and the students are free to take whatever information they want during their lunch break. No one from any of the organizations [is] at the tables so there is no outside pressure on the students to pickup anything.”
Students interviewed by WFTV told the station they supported the idea.
“(You can) learn a different part of society and learn different cultures, which bases on religion,” said student Javier Rivera.
The 76-year-old man who leads World Changers told the station he chose Orange County because when he grew up in the area during the 1940s, students memorized parts of the Bible in school.
Not all of the response, however, has been positive.
An organization called Central Florida Freethought Community, or CFFC, associated with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, called the schools’ decision to permit Bible distribution “wrong policy” and planned a literature drop of its own.
David Williamson of the CFFC, said in a statement, “This group of biblical literalists has somehow convinced the school board that our public schools should be a religious battleground of sorts. This is unacceptable to freethinkers and persons of all religious traditions, including many Christians. But because the school board insists on opening the schools up to Christian proselytizers, we think it’s important that students receive materials countering their religious propaganda.””
The statement continued, “Some items being considered for distribution are ‘An X-Rated Book: Sex & Obscenity in the Bible,’ ‘Ten Common Myths About Atheists,’ as well as literature about starting student-led secular organizations on campus and books by atheists Dan Barker and Madalyn Murray O’Hair among others.”
Religious Freedom Day
Each year since 1993, the U.S. president has declared Jan. 16 to be Religious Freedom Day in honor of the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786. The statute – which ended collecting taxes to support local clergy and protected religious expression without discrimination – is widely considered the basis for the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
President Obama, consequently, issued a proclamation on Jan. 16 declaring Religious Freedom Day.
“Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose. As a free country, our story has been shaped by every language and enriched by every culture. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, Sikhs and non-believers. Our patchwork heritage is a strength we owe to our religious freedom,” Obama stated. “As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution.”
Jefferson’s original statute, notably, was more Judeo-Christian in its language.
“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free,” Jefferson wrote, “that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do … be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”