Court Allows Religious Material

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St. Louis, MO, July 16 – Today the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the South Iron School District and upheld the right of the district to establish an open forum for distribution of materials on school property. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and held that the District’s new policy should not have been declared unconstitutional by the lower court judge. Under the district’s policy, secular and religious material can be distributed by any group, including the Gideons. Liberty Counsel has defended the school in the case of Doe v. South Iron R-1 School District since 2006. Mathew Staver presented oral argument at the Court of Appeals.

In September 2006, the ACLU filed suit against the district to stop the Gideons from providing Bibles to public school students. Federal District Judge Catherine Perry issued an order prohibiting the distribution of any Bible, which she derisively described as an “instrument of religion.” The district then adopted a written equal access policy that treats the distribution of secular and religious literature outside of class on an equal basis. Outside groups may apply to distribute literature from stationary tables in two designated locations, and literature cannot be distributed in the classroom. Judge Perry also ruled the district’s equal access policy unconstitutional, saying that under the policy, the Bible could still be distributed. The ruling presented a novel (and unconstitutional) theory that a private third party (like the ACLU) must have the opportunity to veto the distribution request of the private applicant. The veto power, the judge wrote, must be provided to veto religious, but not secular, literature.

The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, and thus upheld the district’s new equal access policy. The Court rejected the lower court ruling because it would have precluded the school “from ever creating a limited public forum in which religious materials may be distributed in a constitutionally neutral manner.” The Court stated that “school officials must remain free to experiment in good faith with new policies to accommodate the tensions between educational objectives, … private rights under the Free Exercise Clause, and … the Establishment Clause…”

Mathew D. Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, who argued the case at every stage of the litigation, commented: “We are pleased that the new equal access policy can finally go into effect. The Bible cannot be singled out for special penalties like contraband. The Founders never envisioned open hostility toward religious viewpoints.”

This article is excerpted from a Liberty Counsel press release