FFRF Sues Florida School District Over Literature Discrimination

You may recall that, back in January, World Changers of Florida, Inc. held Bible distributions at a number of public high schools in Orange County. No student would be forced to take one, but there would be a table set up where interested students could take a copy if they wanted one:

This alone could have been illegal, but the Orange County School Board agreed that non-Christian groups could also have a distribution if they wanted. The Central Florida Freethought Community called their bluff and planned their own giveaway.

The only problem was that the atheist giveaways were heavily censored:

Orange County Public Schools insisted on vetting the freethought literature from FFRF and other secular groups. It censored many of the materials, including “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Sam Harris’ book; “The Truth,” an essay by Robert G. Ingersoll; “Jesus Is Dead” a book by Robert Price, professor of philosophy and religion; “What on Earth Is an Atheist,” a book by Madalyn Murray O’Hair; “Why I am Not a Muslim,” a book by Ibn Warraq, and several FFRF “nontracts,” including “Dear Believer,” “Why Jesus?” “What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?” and “An X-Rated Book.”

The school board obviously had no issue with rape or violence since they allowed the Bible in… but why would anyone censor Letter to a Christian Nation or Why I am Not a Muslim?

In fact, the list of literature that was censored is long and much of it makes little sense:

The school board offered some flimsy explanations for their decisions, but FFRF is betting that the courts won’t buy them either. It really just boils down to, “AHHH! ATHEISTS!” So earlier today, FFRF filed a federal lawsuit (PDF) against the district:

The school district prohibited one book because its message that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected “is age inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school.” However, the bible that the school approved for distribution claims that [Jesus was] crucified and resurrected. “Permitting one viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection occurred) and censoring the opposing viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection did not occur) is unconstitutional,” FFRF’s complaint states.

The complaint lists dozens of factual examples of how secular materials and secular volunteers were treated differently from the World Changers and the biblical material:

  • The district objected to the Harris book for describing “the sacrifice of virgins, killing and eating of children in order to ensure the future fertility of mothers, feeding infants to sharks, and the burning of widows so they can follow their husbands into the next world.” FFRF’s complaint notes that the concepts flagged as age inappropriate all appear in the bible.
  • WCF put up interactive whiteboards, had volunteers staffing tables to talk with students and passed out invitations to worship at the Orlando Wesleyan Church. Plaintiffs attempted to pass out a pizza party invitation but were censored at several schools. Freethought volunteers had to wait up to an hour at some schools to set up.

FFRF has a strong case that the district is engaging in viewpoint discrimination, but even if they don’t win, they may get the school board to reconsider opening its doors to any religious group ever again.

That’s really the ideal outcome.

Atheists just want equal treatment — but in cases like these, it’d be perfectly fine if the school just said no to all religious and atheist groups entirely. They didn’t do that this year, and they can only blame themselves for all the mistakes they made when choosing which literature was acceptable for students to take.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I just had to re-read my “Dear Believer” to figure out what was wrong with it. It’s blunt to be sure, but the ‘worst’ parts in it are straight from the bible.

    • WallofSleep

      I’m not sure how true this is, but I recall someone telling me that the reason Hollywood made so many movies pulled from bible stories back in the day was due to morality codes and censorship boards being so damnably strict that the only way filmmakers could get any kind of violence, sex, adultery, etc., into their movies (and get away with it) was to base them on bible stories.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harrison/23417637 Michael Harrison

        Looked around about this; results inconclusive. Possibly one of the best-known biblical sagas is DeMille’s Ten Commandments, and an NPR story states another of his films, Sign of the Cross, was one of the big instigators for government censorship; IMDb says this film was released in 1932; and TV Tropes states the Hays Code was “adopted in 1930 but not seriously enforced until 1934.” Make of this what you will.

        • calciferboheme

          To be fair, the Hays Code wasn’t government censorship. It was an internal thing done by the studios to keep the government out, same as the MPAA now.

  • Brian Westley

    This is no different than if a public school allowed a Muslim group to distribute the koran, and then wouldn’t allow a Christian group to distribute the bible because describing Jesus as god incarnate contradicted Islam. Good for FFRF for not accepting this Christian-deferring censorship.

    • Cocky Bastard

      Most of the stuff looks good, but Harris’s stuff is Hate Literature, no doubt about it.

      • Brian Westley

        That doesn’t justify censorship, particularly when something like the bible is OK’d in spite of e.g. advocating genocide, slavery, rape, etc.

      • grisjuan

        “Hate Literature” is pretty harsh – what makes it so hateful in your opinion? I haven’t read the whole thing, but none of the excerpts I’ve seen seem invalid or hateful.

      • Ateu, e dai?

        Well, a lot of the old testament is Hate Literature too. I don´t know if Harris´ books would be the ideal choice as “atheism literature”, but the complaint is that if they allowed the Bible to be distributed, they should allow Harris´ books too.

      • Dekker Van Wyk

        Have you actually read Harris’ books or just the slanders, distortions and lies from people like Chris Hedges, Glen Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, none of whom has read any of his work either, judging by the contents of their screeds against Harris?

        • John H

          I’ve read several of his books, and I’m confident in saying that Harris is sometimes especially and unfairly critical of Muslims specifically*. I wouldn’t classify Letter as “hate literature,” though.

          *He is also especially and *fairly* critical of Muslims in some cases –
          can we find ANY examples of Christians killing someone over clothing
          choices in the past ten years, and millions of other Christians offering
          public support? Googling “muslim clothing murder”, I get dozens of instances in the first several pages. Googling “christian clothing murder”, I get only one murder related to clothing in ten pages of results – a Christian student murdered by Muslim students for wearing a cross. Some of that could be due to bias introduced by Google’s ranking algorithms, but it’s also a HUGE difference in incidence. I also searched “shinto clothing murder” and got nothing (six results total, none of them about murders due to clothing choice); “hindu clothing murder” gives me a few results with women who were raped (and gang-raped) and then victim-blamed because they were wearing ‘provocative’ clothes, but still way fewer than looking at Islam even if one counts those. Victim-blaming rape victims/survivors based on their clothing choices is, of course, quite common here in our nominally-secular USA.

  • http://gadlaw.com gadlaw

    Incredible. It just goes to remind us that when an exasperated theist asks why we keep pushing our views out there we know it’s because the theists never stop trying to silence anyone who disagrees with their fantasy views. And we all know how things go when we are silent and don’t fight back – we get buried.

  • Drew M.

    Dumb question: What does the “solicitation removed” on some of those titles mean?

    I’m guessing that the district initially prohibited them, but changed their mind.

    • WallofSleep

      Taking a wild guess, I would assume the “solicitation” part consisted of something like “If you’d like to learn more, feel free to contact us at…. or join us for our weekly meeting at…”

    • carolsue1313

      I think the “solicitation removed” means they were stolen or removed from the table by unknown. The tables were unmanned per guidelines.

    • Brian Westley

      The lawsuit has Exhibit L, a memo that says “(the materials should have solicitation materials removed from the last page)” for those titles.

      • Drew M.

        That makes sense. For example, the SSA materials had the “Join SSA” portion removed.

        Thanks!

    • Reginald Selkirk

      It means you can’t solicit for prostitution while you are handing out the booklet.

  • randomfactor

    “The Truth” –banned from the school.

    • allein

      So after seeing that at the beginning of this post, I went and downloaded it for myself before I even finished reading the post. Thanks Florida schools!

    • baal

      Sam’s position is pretty extreme. He doesn’t like even social lies. Of course, the word ‘Truth’ only belongs to one group of people and we can’t have anyone else using the wØrd.

      • Gus Snarp

        Sam? “The Truth” is by Robert Green Ingersoll, not Sam Harris. Or did you mean something else I’m missing?

        • baal

          http://www.samharris.org/lying Sorry wires crossed.

        • Randay

          It’s good news that after more than 100 years Robert Ingersoll is still recognized. But am I wrong to doubt that the members had ever heard of him much less read his works?

          • Gus Snarp

            How can you ever be wrong to doubt in the absence of any evidence? But are we talking about secular group members or school board members? If secular group members, it’s reasonable to doubt, but I’d bet it would be very wrong to conclude. If school board members? Yeah, they probably never had.

  • DougI

    Censoring Ingersoll? If Atheists could charge someone with blasphemy it would be that.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Sue to win. Do not settle. Make it hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, the moment they think nobody’s looking, they’ll start doing it again. They will never be convinced that they’re not entitled to imposing this kind of double standard. They’ll always think that it’s perfectly okay to permit literature they like, and suppress literature they don’t like. They think the obvious unfairness is all made okay just by uttering the magic word, “Jesus.” Only the memory of a very damaging lawsuit will stop them from doing it again.

    • Artor

      Even that won’t do it, since it’s the taxpayers that foot the bill. But eventually, word will get out that this is a sure-fire way to bankrupt your school district, and people will stop electing theocratic bigots.

      • Sue Blue

        Bankrupting the school district may be a part of their plan, since many of these Christian fundies and dominionists openly disparage the public school system and see it as a threat to their ideology.

    • Sue Blue

      Good idea, but they will then scream “PERSECUTION!!!!!” at the tippy top of their lungs and until they’re blue in the face. It’ll all be about how brutal and unfair and litigious the atheists are. If they can’t win any other way, they simply drown out common sense with noise.

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        They do all that anyway, even when all they face is a letter of complaint. So we have nothing to lose by suing to win.

  • Artor

    Another point- they insisted that the atheist table be unmanned, and of course it was vandalized. (some Good Xtian™ poured water all over the books and pamphlets) The same requirement was in place for the Xtian table, but as you can see in the pic at the top of the article, there’s people there, behind the table, watching over their stuff and presumably talking to students about Jebus.

  • JB

    As we all know, they don’t actually *read* their Bibles, LOL.

    • midnight rambler

      Uh…try again, dude.

    • http://www.facebook.com/billpg Bill P. Godfrey

      (That’s an odd bug. I wonder if I can recreate it.)

  • pamsfriend

    My good ffrf dollars at work.

  • Sue Blue

    What does “plaintiffs rescinded” mean?

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      FFRF agreed to not distribute that material. I mean, they ‘agreed’ on all of them because they had to, but they’re not fighting those ones.

  • eric

    I’m somewhat surprised they didn’t suggest Twain’s Letters from the Earth.

  • Gus Snarp

    I really want to see courtroom testimony where it is shown that everything the schools objected to, and worse, is all present in the Bible. The transcript should be fun reading. It’s like they’ve handed us a gift: the chance to prove in court that the Bible is full of every bit as much obscene content as any book ever banned from any school.

  • Rose

    Wow. I’m an atheist and I work for this school district (at a lowly level). Huge mistake to let the bibles into the schools in the first place, that’s where they went wrong. Too much arrogance on the part of district leaders who feel they are in a Christian region or even a “Christian nation” and assume they won’t upset anyone. The lawsuit could send an important message to Florida, I just hope it doesn’t wind up taking a bite out of all the positive things that these public schools do for a very diverse and amazing group of kids. Not sure how this will turn out financially, just hope my students don’t see cuts to an already underfunded education system.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I hope at the trial the defendants have to explain in detail, item-by-item why they prohibited each of those works. The Truth by Ingersoll is a great classic, as are most of his essays. I can only assume that the school district is afraid of it and Letter to a Christian Nation because they’re persuasive and they’re brief. I think the school district administrators were afraid that kids might actually read them, and actually start thinking critically about the nonsense and lies they’ve been fed.

  • Dekker Van Wyk

    It would have been so much easier for the administrators of the Orange
    County School District to just flush big bags of money down the toilet
    or to set them on fire, now they will have to give them to the FFRF and
    the local plaintiffs when they (badly) lose the coming lawsuit. Don’t
    school districts have lawyers on retainer to prevent them from making
    such stupid moves by informing them of legal precedent and such?

  • Good and Godless

    “Atheists just want equal treatment” Not true – In realm with actual gods and an actual choice to follow them or not an Atheist should expect equal treatment. Today Atheists are legally entitled to equal treatment, but by virtue of being correct, and religion being faked, the option for seeking equality with the mistaken is a huge compromise I am not willing to make.


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