A Judge Dismissed FFRF’s Lawsuit to Distribute Atheist Books in a Florida School District, but It’s Still a Victory

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:

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 (CFFC) called their bluff and planned their own giveaways.

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 the Freedom From Religion Foundation didn’t buy them — and they felt that the courts wouldn’t either since it really just boiled down to, “AHHH! ATHEISTS!” So, in June, FFRF filed a federal lawsuit 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.

The point of the lawsuit was simple: If you’re letting Christians hand out materials promoting their beliefs, you can’t stop atheists (and others) from doing the same. To argue otherwise is viewpoint discrimination. The district must allow everyone or no one.

Yesterday, a district judge dismissed FFRF’s lawsuit — but not on its merits. Judge Kendall Sharp noted that the school district has since allowed FFRF to distribute all the books it previously prohibited, making this lawsuit irrelevant:

In this case, the circumstances are sufficiently clear that the alleged wrongful behavior — Defendant’s initial prohibition of a subset of the materials that Plaintiffs sought to distribute — will not recur in the future.

Defendant has unambiguously expressed its position that each of the materials Plaintiffs sought to distribute will be unconditionally allowed.

It should be noted that the school gave FFRF and CFFC permission to distribute their books in January, but neither atheist group chose to participate at the time. David Williamson of CFFC explained that they didn’t participate because he didn’t have enough time to prepare the materials and find volunteers.

FFRF’s Co-President Dan Barker sees Sharp’s decision as a victory, with only slight reservation:

“We disagree with how the court and the school district chose to handle this clear-cut discrimination, so we’ll likely be appealing on some issues, but overall, it’s a win.”

The best part about all this? It means other groups can join in on the fun. Satanists can distribute their literature. So can Wiccans. And Muslims who want to give away copies of the Koran. Scientologists? Why not. The more, the merrier. And it all drowns out the Christians who wanted to be there in the first place.

Maybe the district will finally realize it’s best to close the doors to outside religious groups altogether and let the students focus on getting a real education without outside intervention.

(Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)

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