I told the Miller School District in May that their decision to allow the Gideons to distribute Bibles to fifth graders was unconstitutional. And the Miller School District listened!
Actually, they listened to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent the Miller School District a complaint outlining the obvious church-state-separation problem of a public school letting religious groups proselytize on campus. Last month, the school board reversed its Bible-distribution policy and told the Gideons and other converters to hand out their tracts elsewhere.
This reversal is a small but instructive victory for us liberals trying to bring secular sanity to South Dakota. The Miller board president's comments on the reversal explain why:
"It's been through the court system and everything. We've got to follow the letter of the law," said board president Tim Zacher.
The reversal came after the ACLU sent a letter to the Miller School District in May saying the school was on "shaky constitutional ground" by allowing religious literature to be distributed in a public school.
...Zacher said he was disappointed the board was forced to change its policy and disallow the Bible distribution.
"Our founding fathers felt God very strong in this country," he said.
The Bibles had been distributed in previous years at Miller, though Zacher didn't know for how long.
"We had never had a bit of problem with it before," he said. "I guess that's the way it is" [David Montgomery, "Miller School Board Reverses Policy Allowing Handout of Bibles," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.07.30].
Never had problem before... there's a key phrase. We may think that conservative Republican fundagelicanism is just entrenched in South Dakota culture and institutions. But Miller shows that bad policy may be less entrenched and simply unchallenged. As long as there's not a problem, nothing happens. But create a problem, or even warn there could be a problem, and local leaders may surrender. The ACLU didn't have to lawyer up; they just wrote a letter, showed the Miller school board that the Constitution was not on their side, and got the proper result.
That's why, instead of retreating to Minnesota and other saner political spheres, I keep encouraging my fellow South Dakota liberals, atheists, and other lovers of freedom to stand up and fight. Not every school board or city council will surrender before superior logic and law. But many will, preferring to avoid conflict and headlines. If we challenge every instance of local theocracy and other oppression, and if only 25% of the boards we challenge give in without a fight, those few easy victories give us that much more precedent for fighting hard against the remaining 75% to get liberty and justice for all... including liberty for our fifth-graders from Gideons, jihadis, Satanists, and atheists who may try to co-opt school grounds to advance or denigrate specific religions.
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Under the Constitution schools cannot intentionally, or unintentionally, advance religion or become too entangled with religious groups. The courts have repeatedly said that schools must also avoid favoring or appearing to favor a religious view, and they may not create any situation in which students feel coerced to participate in religion. These constitutional protections ensure that students can find and follow their own faith with the guidance of their family and religious leaders, free from government intrusion [ACLU, press release, 2014.05.12].