Allen Berger Wins Indiana Lawsuit Gideon Bible Handouts In Schools Ruled Unconstitutional

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Allen Berger Wins Indiana Lawsuit Gideon Bible Handouts In Schools Ruled Unconstitutional The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled on January 5 in favor of Allen Berger's challenge of bible distribution in his public schools. The decision reversed a 1991 lower court ruling permitting Gideon Bibles to be distributed to fifth-grade pupils in a Rensselaer public school. The appeals court called the distribution "in clear violation of constitutional principles mandating separation of church and state," saying it sent a message of governmental endorsement of the Christian Bible. Prof. Berger filed suit on behalf of his two school-age children with the help of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in October, 1989. U.S. Dist. Judge Allen Sharpe ruled in 1991 that the bible distribution "is no more an endorsement of Christianity than allowing Little League baseball to disseminate its materials" is an endorsement of baseball. The three-judge appeals panel ruled: "Such a conclusion is tone-deaf to the Constitution's mandate that the government must not establish a state religion, and is utterly insensitive to the special concern about coercive influences in impressionable public school children." "We must continue to view with suspicion governmental forays into religious activity, particularly in the context of public schools. The relationship between the corporation and the Gideons cannot survive this scrutiny." The judges called the "assistance" provided to the Gideons by the Rensselaer Central School Corporation "a far more glaring offense to First Amendment principles" than the nondenominational graduation prayers recently ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state/church abuse had been going on in Rensselaer for about 40 years. Fifth-graders had been given pocket-sized versions of the New Testament, sometimes by Gideon representatives in classrooms, other times during a special school assembly. The Gideon Society traditionally has avoided litigation on its illegal practices since the 1950's, by temporarily halting distribution in communities where complaints are made. The American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, Virginia, joined lawyers for the school district in arguing the Gideons had a "free speech" right to proselytize schoolchildren. Judge Walter Cummings wrote for the appeals court that the school was providing a captive audience. Berger, a professor of anthropology, spoke about his case on Dec. 5, at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's 1992 annual conference in San Antonio. His entertaining speech, "From The Motel Room To The Classroom: Nobody Escapes the Gideons" was reprinted in the December, 1992 issue of Freethought Today. Berger's case sets an important modern precedent. Foundation members aware of this illegal practice in their communities are encouraged to complain, and to alert the Foundation so it may take action. ------------------------------------------------------------------------- This article is reprinted (with permission) from the January/February 1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. For more information, write Freedom From Religion Foundation P. O. Box 750 Madison, WI 53701 USA (608) 256-8900


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