SMITHFIELD -- The Gideons have been a fixture in Johnston County schools for years, setting up tables in hallways where they pass out Bibles.
But the Gideons and similar groups could soon be barred from distributing literature on Johnston campuses.
The Johnston County Board of Education could vote as early as next month to ban literature from outside groups. The board debated a draft policy at its meeting last week.
Board members said they were opposed to the ban in principle but said it was the only way to keep outside groups from giving kids inappropriate literature.
“Part of my job is to keep your liability low and do what’s best for the children,” Superintendent Ed Croom told board members.
“It’s unfortunate that this is necessary to keep one group out,” he said.
The problem began last spring, when both religious and nonreligious groups approached Croom with requests to distribute literature on school grounds. The superintendent said Mormons, Scientologists and a group that was either atheist or agnostic wanted to distribute books and flyers in schools.
The agnostic group, Croom said, had literature that he said was “on the verge of vulgar.” The group, which Croom declined to identify, wanted to pass out books that had drawings of nude people.
“It had pictures in it that were not appropriate for children,” he said, adding that he no longer had copies of the materials in question.
His response was to say no to not only the agnostics buts also the Mormons and Scientologists. “I knew that if I banned one, I’d have to ban them all,” Croom said.
One of the groups complained to the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned the schools that it would be unlawful to allow some groups, like the Gideons, but not others.
“You can’t have a table where Gideons hand out Bibles but not allow nonreligious groups,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the North Carolina ACLU. “There has to be balance, and you can’t have a preference either way.”
But the law does allow a “closed” policy — in which no outside groups can distribute literature on school groinds. Last week, school board attorney Jimmy Lawrence presented a draft of such a policy.
“If you let one group distribute literature, you have to let every group that wants to distribute literature come in,” Lawrence said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s religious or it’s political; anything that’s out there, they’re allowed to do that if you open up your schools as a public forum.”
Croom said differences in religious stances were “not the issue.” Instead, he said he was concerned about the appropriateness of the material. When asked why he didn’t simply ban the offending material, Croom said he didn’t want to be the judge of what was appropriate and what was not.
“Where does it stop?” he said. “If you allow one and folks keep coming forward, where do you draw the line?”
Some board members were disgusted by the idea of an atheist or agnostic group distributing materials to children. Butler Hall called some of the material he had seen “pure, unadulterated evil.”
Hall said he was reluctant to bar Christians from distributing Bibles to students. But he said he saw it as the only way to keep out inappropriate literature.
“You have to shut the door to evil,” Hall said.
Other board members shared his sentiment. Dorothy Johnston said the board would have to sacrifice “one for all.”
Peggy Smith said trying to make judgment calls on what is or isn’t appropriate literature could lead to litigation. “We cannot do … anything that will take us into court and waste the resources of the system,” she said.
Donna White said she would vote against any policy that would, in effect, keep Christian groups from handing out Bibles to students.
White said she understood the legal concerns but didn’t want to aid what she saw as a trend of Americans moving away from religion.
“We can make a decision to stand firm to the history (of) the faith-based community we live in,” she said.