A Florida Teenager Fights Back Against Bible Distribution at His Public High School

This is a guest post by Daniel Koster. Daniel is the President of the Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance at Wekiva High School in Florida.

***

We found out late Monday night that the School Board had given a group permission to hand out Bibles at our schools. The news reported it and David Williamson, leader of the Central Florida Freethought Community, alerted several local leaders in a message headed “URGENT.” It certainly was. That night, we found out that a possible church-state violation would occur two days later.

Sign seen outside Apopka High School last week (Cody Smith, Co-founder of the Apopka High Secular Student Alliance)

The next night, we prepared to monitor the distribution and ensure the group was following the rules. These were pretty simple rules: The Bibles were to be placed on tables which could not be attended by anybody, and no volunteer from World Changers Florida — the group behind the distribution — could speak to any student. (It’s called “passive distribution.”) Members of the group I lead at my school, Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance (WASA), would take notes and pictures if they broke the rules. (Students at a few of the many other schools receiving Bibles prepared to do the same.)

Wednesday came… and, as expected, they broke the rules.

Tables covered with Bibles appeared during lunch, one just outside the cafeteria, one inside. Both were looked after by people talking to students. (The people came from a different group, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but they were at the tables, nonetheless.)

Manned table at Wekiva High School (Daniel Koster)

We decided not to worry too much about the broken rules because we figured there was a better way to make a point. If the school only allowed Christians to proselytize in schools, that would be unfair, no doubt a violation of church-state separation. The only way it would be fair is if everyone — Jews, Muslims, Scientologists, Ron Paul supporters, The Flat Earth Society, etc. — could hand out their own materials. That included atheists, too. So we asked the school if they would allow other groups the same right the Christians had, and they assured us that we would (provided we met certain criteria… though I can’t imagine the Good Book passed any sort of “appropriateness” test).

As it turns out, the Freedom From Religion Foundation prints these pamphlets called nontracts, colorful little booklets discussing topics like, “Sex and Obscenity in the Bible,” “Is America a Christian Nation?” and “What is a Freethinker?” Not only would most of the kids at my school learn a great deal from reading these, but asking to distribute them would let us test the fairness of the school board’s policy. Unlike the Bible pushers, though, we would follow the rules, put the pamphlets on the table, and walk away.

David and CFFC are working on that as we speak, but the media response to this story has been inspiring — I mean the real, mainstream, corporate media. Local ABC and FOX affiliates, and the Orlando Sentinel, have all reported on this story, including our side of it, and they did it fairly; that would have been unheard of a decade ago.

There are a few possible outcomes here.

First is that the school board doesn’t allow us to distribute our materials, which could possibly lead to a lawsuit.

Second is that they decide to ban all distribution of outside materials. (This is what we ultimately want.)

Third is that they let us come in… and then other groups decide to come in… and our public schools become bustling marketplaces where everyone wants a chance to convert the students. If that happens, the board will probably ban outside materials altogether which, again, is just what we want.

Despite its myriad flaws, I like my school. I want everyone else there to like it, and that means fighting to ensure that everyone is treated fairly. So far, with the support of the secular movement at large, we’re getting there.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://twitter.com/GWSKEPTIC GW Secular Society

    Wow! Fantastic prep work and documentation work by the group!

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.gwinn Don Gwinn

    . . . and they’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      You remind me of Tim Minchin’s song “Storm”:
      “If you must watch telly, you should watch Scooby Doo. That show was so cool because every time there was a church with a ghoul, or a ghost in a school, they looked beneath the mask. And what was inside? The Fucking janitor or the dude who ran the water slide! Because throughout history, every mystery ever solved has proven to be…not magic.”

      • allein

        That is my favorite part of that song. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1236955132 David Williamson

    Great summary, Daniel! Thanks for sharing.

  • Lou Jost

    Daniel, congratulations on your level-headed but strong response! I wish you the best in this and future fights.

  • http://twitter.com/SteveWellsSAB Steve Wells

    Nice article, Daniel! Thanks for defending reason in our nation’s schools. If you would like, we can donate a box of Skeptic’s Annotated Bibles to your cause, if you need more materials to handout.

    • http://www.facebook.com/waveofreason Daniel Koster

      Sweet fancy Moses, we would love some! The only thing is that the tables have to be unattended. I’ve seen the book, and it would break my heart if such nice copies got destroyed. I’ve referenced SAB and it’s a great resource; I could actually envision it being very effective with a religious person who had never thought about what the bible really says, so in that regard I really hope somebody does pick it up from the table.

      • Pixie

        Sweet Fancy Moses… I’ll have to remember that one!

      • http://twitter.com/SteveWellsSAB Steve Wells

        What is your timetable, Daniel? I’d still be happy to provide books, even if some of them get trashed. That’s just a risk that we’re taking, right? Send me a PM on twitter @stevewellsSAB or Facebook http://www.facebook.com/TheSkepticsAnnotatedBibleQuranBookOfMormon and we can go from there.

  • Kenneth

    Daniel Koster, you are truly an inspiration. I happen to live in the area and to know that you have to go through normal school activities and fight for a cause, it is just extraordinary. Keep on doing what you do, and know that there is at least one person in this world that knows you’re doing the right thing, and probably many more out there that are equally proud of you! Great job!

  • Bert Russell

    If they broke the rules, then they should suffer the consequences. Don’t let that slide.

    • newavocation

      They know it’s easier to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

  • Phil Cleaver

    Great work, Daniel! Way to work with the rules and within the system to prove a rational and reasonable point. I wish you could live stream or at least video record the event in case any hateful bigots resorted to vandalism.

  • SteveS

    This is awesome! I actually graduated from Wekiva a couple years back and contacted the teacher who hosts the SSA branch there yesterday night because I was concerned about this very issue. I’m glad to see something is being done about it. Thanks for your post, Daniel. The freethought community is fortunate to have you on its side! Keep up the excellent work.

    As for me, I hope that we can end this crap altogether so public schools can become places of secular learning once more. The only thing that should be done with religion in high school is to critically examine it, like we do every other subject. This stuff is extremely divisive and who needs more divisions, especially in high school?

    Once again,thank you for your work! The freethought community needs more people who can be as levelheaded and eloquent as you.

    • SteveS

      You ought to have reported them though. I have no patience with people like these anymore. The law is the law, they broke it, they ought to deal with the consequences. If you see this again, which I hope you don’t, report it. Don’t let people like them be allowed to think they can operate outside the rules.

  • Cat’s Staff

    Were the people at the booth students from that school? Are they trying to get around the rules by having students do the proselytizing? If the FCA student group (if there is such a thing at the school) were to request a table to hand out materials, would they be allowed to? [connecting the dots…] could this be a way for student groups that can’t normally set up a table like this, but can talk openly to other students about religion and a group that can set up a table and provide materials, but can’t interact with students to get around to rules?

  • Rob Major

    I live in Orlando, and I can’t believe this is going on. The local Orlando Sentinel articles keep mentioning that the group behind the Bible distribution, World Changers of Florida, filed a federal lawsuit in south Florida, and as a result, they supposedly can now distribute Bibles in Florida schools. I think this is a load of malarkey. I have searched Lexis and can find no ruling from a federal court in Florida allowing this group to distribute Bibles in public schools.

    I may be wrong, but my guess is that, if anything, this group sued Collier county and then, before any ruling on the constitutionality of this practice was ever issued, the group reached a settlement agreement with the county (motivated on both sides by a desire to avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to litigate a constitutional question all the way through trial), which settlement agreement then allowed this group — as well as any other group, including atheists — to distribute Bibles, tracts, religious and anti-religious literature, etc., in schools in Collier County under certain specified conditions. My next guess is that this group now passes that settlement agreement off as “legal authorization from the federal court” to distribute bibles here in Orange County. If that’s what is going on, this is a colossal joke. Settlement agreements terminating lawsuits are not rulings, and they only bind the parties, as any contract between them would do. They are not the equivalent of a federal judge’s ruling on constitutional questions. If I am wrong and there is an actual ruling, then show me the ruling!

    I have written the Sentinel reporter who wrote the articles, asking for a link or a cite to the “federal court ruling” that supposedly allowed this Bible distribution in schools to go on. So far, no response. I have posted a message on World Changers website asking for the same information. So far, the post is still “in moderation,” meanwhile, there has been no response. My own research found no such ruling; rather, I found a state (not federal) appellate decision from years ago that specifically prohibited the Gideons from distributing Bibles in public schools in Florida, as that practice very plainly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I don’t see how this situation is significantly different than the Gideon case; if the approach (which this article shows is not happening anyway) of making sure that the tables remain “unmanned” (where the free bibles are being distributed) is their method of getting around the prior ruling in the Gideons’ case, well, that is some very thin legal ice they are skating on. What’s that cracking sound?

    I seriously doubt that what just happened in the Orange County public schools is constitutional. The mere fact that Satanists and atheists and Zoroastrianists can also, as has been stated in all these press releases, distribute their own literature in the schools doesn’t change this fact one bit. If anything, it simply muddies the water, and introduces a new version of a previously discredited strategy — employed by anti-science religious fanatics to introduce creationism (and its bastard child, “intelligent design”) into the public school science curriculum — known as “teach the controversy.” It’s just a method for sneaking religion into the public schools, as Judge Jones observed in the Kitzmiller v. City of Dover case.

    What I want to know is, why is the Orange County School Board allowing this nonsense to go on? Why will nobody come out and actually say what the specific “legal authority” for allowing this activity to go actually is? If there really is a federal court ruling allowing “passive distribution” of Bibles in public schools, by outside religious groups during school hours — in hallways next to cafeterias, where students who want to eat lunch can’t avoid being confronted by aggressive evangelical student proselytizers whose activities have now been authorized by the School Board — then please tell us what that authority is. Give us the link or the citation to the ruling! What court issued it, what judge, what case number, and what date of filing? My guess is … it does not exist, and this practice needs to stop.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Possibly helping with your search, I recall hearing it was a “consent agreement” rather than “ruling”.

  • meh

    Atheists are now more annoying than the people who hand out these bibles.

    • Blasphemous_Kansan

      http://xkcd.com/774/
      Congratulations on your morally superior position.

    • baal

      If the xtians didn’t try to proselytize at school (a governmental entity, captive audience) you’d not hear a peep out of the atheists.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kurt-Kish/1541224934 Kurt Kish

      No they’re not.

  • tobias27

    I am regularly amazed by the young atheists across our country and beyond. Good work Daniel. Keep it up !

  • PJLR

    I don’t see how they broke the rules – the group that distributed the bibles didn’t stand by the table or anywhere near it, which is what the rules were. You’re saying the rules were broken because someone stood near the table and talked? – what did you expect, that the students would walk quietly and individually up to the table, look at it, decide to take a Bible (or not), and walk away? You have an issue with them standing there and talking? What were they talking about – how unusual it was that a table with free bibles was there? It seems like you’re looking for something to be offended by.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

    I liked the “Why not Talos?” question in the corner of that whiteboard.

    Damned Thalmor, taking away our rights to worship our God-King-Emperor-Dragonborn!

  • Kelley’s mom

    This kid is my kid’s best friend from Camp Quest! Way to go, Daniel!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawn.owen.thisiscrap Shawn Owen

    Congrats and keep up the pressure they will fold soon enough and keep documenting the violations for law suits if needed, a picture is worth a thousand words and 10 pictures is worth millions!!!

  • atheistbob

    FLASH: FLorida Atheists and Secular Humanists is donating copies of Ingersoll’s “Truth”…Hope the jackasses that decided to allow that filth from the church into our schools realize the UNCONSTITUTIONALITY of what they have done! Madison and Jefferson are turning over in their graves!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.weeks.16 Dan Weeks

    Great work! Kids like you give me hope for the future. We need more free thinkers, skeptics, and people who value reason, logic, and evidence! I hope the school board comes to their senses!

    • http://www.facebook.com/nathan.stewart.7731 Nathan Stewart

      Don’t you think your list of wants should apply to from an Atheist position as well? Maybe the questions the endless questions that science can’t answer maybe can be discovered through scripture and faith.

  • Jonathan Smith

    I would like to contact this young man to offer support from a scientific prospective
    Jonathan Smith VP Florida Citizens for Science

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathan.stewart.7731 Nathan Stewart

    They can hand out free Bibles if they wish to. In this country we have freedom of religion not freedom from religion. If they are not forcing a Bible on you mind your own dame business.You Atheist are so ridiculous if you believe the Bible to be a fairytale why are you so threatened by it being freely handed out to interested people. Are you afraid by these students reading the Bible they may form a different point of view? Atheist claim ration and reason,but, they only want one side to be explored. The double stander of Atheist is overwhelming.Open minded Ha that’s funny!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X