Columbus Day wasn’t the only controversial holiday that some Americans recognized during the past week: Last Thursday was Bring Your Bible To School Day, a relatively new “holiday” foisted upon us by the Religious Right organizations Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom.
An annual event that began in 2014, Bring Your Bible to School Day encourages students to “share God’s love with their friends” – in other words, it’s the organizations’ attempt to turn schoolchildren into conservative Christian missionaries.
There are several key facts that organizers left out about this event. First, on the website created to promote it, nowhere in the introductory text or FAQ page about religious freedom in public schools does it note that students already have the right to bring their Bibles – or any other religious text – to school any day of the year.
Instead, you have to click through several levels of webpages to find mention of this right. A casual observer would be led to believe Oct. 4, 2018, was the only day this school year students could bring their Bibles to a public school. It’s a rather ironic omission, considering this day is promoted by organizations that want to proselytize to schoolchildren whenever possible.
Speaking of proselytism: While young people generally have the right to talk about their religious beliefs in public schools with their fellow students, there are reasonable limits. They can’t disrupt secular instructional time, harass their peers or denigrate others’ beliefs. And religious events like this should never be sponsored or promoted by public schools.
On Americans United’s Students For Church/State Separation website, we provide a detailed description of students’ religious freedom rights in public schools.
Nowhere on the Bring Your Bible To School Day website does it encourage students of other faiths to bring their religious texts to school on Oct. 4, or any other day. Again, several pages deep, you’ll find a vague reference to “other religious books,” but the site is very Bible-centric. There’s no mention of the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Tanakh, the Bhagavad Gita or Dianetics, just to name a few. (And, of course, a student would have the right to bring a book that’s critical of religion.)
The site talks a lot about students’ First Amendment rights, but it clearly is only concerned with promoting the rights of conservative Christians. (And speaking of that First Amendment – ironically, the site provides “conversation cards” and other materials students are encouraged to distribute to explain the event, but it warns students against incorporating their own thoughts. To the question, “Can I alter the materials?” the answer is a flat, “No. … It is very important that the materials not be altered in any way, shape or form.” So much for freedom of expression!)
Bring Your Bible To School Day might have gone largely unnoticed this year but for two news stories. First was the erroneous viral story circulating that President Donald Trump was behind the day. As the fact-checking website Snopes pointed out, the event was not sponsored or promoted by the federal government. (Given the way Trump has promoted national days of prayer and other religious events, I can understand why this fake news seemed believable.)
But one politician did make the news for hyping Bring Your Bible To School Day: Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R). In fact, he put out a short video encouraging kids in Kentucky to participate while he erroneously spread the myth that the Bible is a founding document of American government. It wasn’t a terribly surprising move from Bevin, who twice has proclaimed a “Year of the Bible” in Kentucky, announced an initiative to pray away crime in Louisville and has said that school-mandated Bible reading would prevent violence.
Bevin also touted the Bible literacy bill he signed into law last year, which allows public schools to offer a class just on the Bible as an elective. To no surprise, an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union found that the law resulted in proselytism in schools throughout the state – including teachers using curriculum developed for Christian Sunday schools and students being required to memorize and recite Bible verses.
The bottom line is that students and their families should be able to make their own decisions religion – what they believe and when and how they practice those beliefs. Public schools should be inclusive places that welcome students of all religions and the nonreligious. And public officials, like teachers and school administrators, should stay far away from the personal decisions children and their parents make about faith.