February 2012 Church & State | Editorial

Public schools shouldn’t be in the business of promoting religion. The U.S. Supreme Court made that clear 50 years ago in an important decision called Engel v. Vitale, the first challenge to school-sponsored prayer to reach the high court.

One of the core messages of the Engel ruling is that it’s not the job of public school officials to push any religion on pupils.

Amazingly, five decades later, it seems some public school officials either haven’t gotten that message or simply choose to ignore it.

In Buncombe County, N.C., recently, a parent objected after her son, who attends an intermediate school, brought home a Bible. The Gideons had delivered the Bibles to the school, and officials there agreed to make them available.

That didn’t sit well with Ginger Strivelli, who contacted the school to express her concerns. In response, Principal Jackie Byerly claimed the school would be happy to distribute the scriptures of any other religion.

But when Strivelli called the school’s bluff and showed up with copies of a Pagan book of spells, she was told the school’s policy on the distribution of religious literature was under review. What a surprise.

School officials could have avoided this embarrassment all along by following the law. Numerous federal courts have struck down the distribution of Bibles in public schools.

The legal rationale is simple: The Bible is a religious book. Public schools aren’t supposed to promote one faith over others or meddle in the private religious lives of students. Therefore, it’s not the role of public schools to distribute copies of the Bible or any religious volume, just as it’s not the schools’ job to compel students to pray in a certain way or engage in other acts of worship.

These decisions – which house of worship to attend (if any), when or whether to pray, which prayer to say, which religious book to read – are private matters that must be left in the hands of parents. Public school officials have no right to interfere in that relationship by trying to persuade impressionable youngsters to adopt a certain religion.

If parents in Buncombe County want their children to have Bibles, there are plenty of ways to get them. The book is a bestseller, after all, and copies are hardly scarce.