CRAWFORD, Ga. -- An Oglethorpe County Elementary School parent has complained after his daughter came home from school with a Bible, but school officials say they don't discriminate and let students decide whether to accept free reading material.
Fifth-grade students at the end of the school day Friday were told they could pick up the pocket-sized Bibles from a table set up by two members of the Gideons, an international group of evangelicals known for passing out the holy book.
"I'm not normally someone to get bent out of shape over every little thing," said Peter Wiley, who lives in Crawford. "I just thought it was just an egregious thing of crossing the line of church and state since she had no other opportunity to pick up any other book or something else to learn from."
The school didn't require the students to take the Bibles home and the exchange didn't occur during the school day, according to Kim Lord, the school's principal.
"They were not forced upon students; they were available to pick one up as they were leaving for their transportation," Lord said. "It was a table just as if they were picking up a pamphlet for parks and rec or any other activity students have an opportunity for."
School administrators and officials also were following federally established guidelines for distributing free materials in schools, which does not exclude religious material, Superintendent Raymond Akridge said.
"On the face of it, our schools are not taking a position of evaluating the materials for religious purposes or any other purpose," Akridge said.
"We allow the principals to make the decision whether or not the Gideons (in this case) are allowed a table at the school," Akridge said. "It's for fifth grade only and it is announced that any student who would like to have a Bible is welcome to pick one up in the hallway on that table. ... There's never a conversation between the Gideon representatives who just stand by the materials and the students who just walk by and take a Bible."
Other school systems, like Madison County's, follow the same unwritten policy, deferring to the federal law, Superintendent Mitch McGhee said.
"That's what the law states, that you can have an open forum such as that so if the Church of Latter Day Saints or an Islamic group if they wanted to lay out some materials, then they would have to do it as well ... it's either all or nothing, you can't pick and choose."
If the school system has never denied other religious groups the same opportunity to display materials, then schools aren't doing anything wrong, said Debra Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia.
"If the local mosque or synagogue asked to display materials and they got turned down, we might have a troublesome situation," Seagraves said. "So, the existence of the Gideon Bible is not in and of itself any kind of a violation."
While the ACLU in Georgia agrees with local school leaders' approach, the issue of distributing Bibles at schools has stirred controversy in other places.
In Texas, the ACLU investigated numerous complaints at 10 schools where classes were disrupted or students harassed by Bible distribution.
Students in one district threw the books or used them to harass Jewish classmates, according to an ACLU report published this month. Christian students were upset by the defacement of their sacred text, and some parents complained that students were coerced into taking the Bibles.
In July, the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision that ended the practice of distributing Bibles in a rural public school system in Eastern Missouri, prohibiting the Gideons from handing out the books on school property at any time during the school day.
"I don't think there's a gray area when you're passing out Bibles in a school," Wiley said. "It's wrong. It's definitely something parents should be aware of that it happened, should have been aware of before it happened, and should not have ever happened."
The Oglethorpe County school board could consider a policy that would prohibit anyone from distributing free materials and information in schools, if the community wanted that change, Akridge said.
"The board does not have a policy in this area. They may want to develop a policy in this area, but until that time, that's the context in which were moving," Akridge said.
"At this point it has not become a problem, but if it does, the board of education may want to address that," Akridge said. "The point may come when we have no groups come in to the school if we have groups that violate community standards."