A request from the Haywood County chapter of Gideons International to distribute Bibles in grades 5 through 12 in the Haywood County schools is being taken under advisement — and prayer.
At last month’s Haywood County Board of Education meeting, Jim Haynes, a member of the local Gideons group started in Haywood in 1963, made a request to resume distribution.
The group had distributed Bibles in the school until 1974 when then-Superintendent Karen Campbell said a lawsuit had been threatened and they would have to stop the practice, Haynes told the board.
The local Gideons continued sidewalk distribution off school property at Waynesville Middle School until the bus routing was changed, Haynes explained, and still does some sidewalk distribution there and at Canton Middle School.
“It’s clear in America we are in desperate need of prayer and God’s word,” Haynes told the board, noting suicide rates and school shootings are on the rise. “It’s not a gun problem. It’s a sin problem. Sin leads to hopelessness and fear.”
The board decided to take the request up at a work session, which was held later in January.
At the work session and in an interview, Pat Smathers, who is the school board’s attorney, explained Haywood Schools are a “closed forum,” meaning that no outside group, whether religious, political, business or social, is allowed to interact with students or provide materials.
“If it was opened up to the Gideons, it would have to be opened up to any religious organization,” he said. “We have gotten requests from non-Christian groups through the years. The Wiccans at one point wanted to do something. Every group wants to get into the school system to promulgate their views. It’s something we’ve dealt with for years and years. Unfortunately, if you let the good ones come in, you’ve got to let the terrible ones in.”
When it comes to a student-led effort, it is an entirely different matter, because it becomes a freedom of speech issue, he explained.
For example, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes could host an event, invite everybody and hand out Bibles to anyone who wanted them.
“It’s when the leadership of the board becomes involved that there are issues,” he said.
School board member and pastor Bobby Rogers spoke in favor of the idea.
“I believe with all my heart one of our jobs is to protect the students. There is one who can do a better job protecting the students than we can, and his name is God,” Rogers said.
He argued there are cases nationally where the prayer issue is being challenged, and wondered how there can be a prayer at some ball games.
“If it’s student led, there’s no problem,” said Superintendent Bill Nolte.
Rogers wondered if that could happen in Haywood if a group such as the FCA petitioned the board to allow it.
Smathers and Nolte advised the board it would be best if board members had no involvement whatsoever as a governing body.
Smathers said the first decision facing the board was whether to reverse its tradition and become an open forum school that allows all groups access to students.
Another option the board could consider is selecting a time when all groups that want to interact with students are invited in and students are free to pick up literature from a table if they would like.
If the board wanted to rely on student-led efforts to advance prayer in the schools or other causes important to students, no action was needed since that’s currently the practice.
The issue on the Gideons request is clear-cut, Smathers said, citing case law going back almost 20 years.
Bible distribution on school property is not allowed, but groups may distribute information or material on private property or on public property outside school boundaries as long as the action doesn’t violate town ordinances.
The court decisions are based on the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Fighting an Establishment Clause lawsuit is expensive, Smathers said, citing a Rowan County commissioner case where the practice of opening meetings with a Christian prayer and inviting audience members to participate was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court, costing Rowan County $285,000 to pay for the ACLU legal fees. That doesn’t count the county’s portion of the legal cost.
After a discussion, the board members decided they would prayerfully consider options.