Jewish students at a public school in Plano, Texas, say they have been pressured by classmates to pick up copies of the New Testament and taunted if they didn't.
According to The Dallas Morning News, Gideons International, an evangelical Christian group, set up display tables in a dozen Plano schools in recent months that offered free Bibles. The effort at evangelism soon sparked interfaith tension, with non-Christian students being targeted for abuse.
Said 16-year-old Vines High School sophomore Jeffrey Lavine, "Probably the one I heard the most was, 'If the Bible touched you, like, will you burn or something?' I sort of played it down as a joke and everything, which it was, but it was definitely a meaner comment than what we're used to."
The student's father, Steve Lavine, told the newspaper, "A lot of effort has been put into the separation of church and state. It seems like this is a backdoor way to bring things back in and has been done in a way that hasn't been thought out."
Parent Cheryl Halpern, who is also Jewish, agreed. She told the Morning News that the situation is especially tough for kids who aren't Christian. Her sons saw the Bible displays at Frankford Middle School last week.
"Being a minority religion, we're concerned when materials are distributed that may create uncomfortable situations for our children with their classmates," she said.
School officials claim their hands are tied due to a judge's order regulating distribution of materials in the school district. Superintendent Doug Otto says a 1999 court ruling mandated equal treatment of outside information coming into the school. The lawsuit was brought by parents who said officials stopped them from handing out information that was critical of a district math program.
"As long as some people have access to the distribution table, all people have access," Dr. Otto told the newspaper. "That is the policy, and we're trying our best to make people aware of it. We certainly don't want people to think we endorse one religion over another."
Parents in the district say something needs to be done, and they're exactly right. Public schools serve students of a vast array of faith perspective and some who follow no spiritual path at all.
When education officials allow outside religious groups to come into the schools and proselytize, they are undermining the constitutional separation of church and state and the fundamental right of parents to make decisions about their children's lives.
The Gideons are a Christian group. If they've read the book they're distributing, they know there's something called the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Is there an evangelical family anywhere that would want their children to be pressured to take Korans, Bhagavad Gitas or copies of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology scriptures?
But if the Gideons don't act voluntarily, the Plano school policy ought to be revised. If necessary, it should be tested in court. Religious proselytism is quite different from distributing literature about the schools' math program, and the two ought not be treated the same.