Atheists, others demand equal access to schools after bible distribution
A day after a Christian group distributed bibles to students inside 11 Orange County high schools, a group of atheists and secular humanists said they plan to hand out materials as well.
"We don't want only some groups to have their say," said David Williamson, organizer of the Central Florida Freethought Community. He said he would prefer to see the school district modify its policies to ban all such handouts. But until then, "we want to be on a level playing field."
Muslim and Jewish leaders said they had no plans to distribute their own religious books.
"It is proselytizing. It has no place in public schools," said Rabbi Rick Sherwin of Congregation Beth Am in Longwood.
Rabbi Steven Engel of Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orange County, said he was "deeply disturbed" that the New Testament was given out in schools. "This is absolutely wrong. It violates the separation of church and state very clearly." He said allowing the distribution on campus makes it appear government is endorsing a particular religious viewpoint.
The school district allowed the action by the World Changers of Central Florida, which promotes the teaching of Creationism and prayer in public schools, because of a 2010 legal decision after Collier County schools denied a similar request by the group. Representatives of World Changers, who could not be reached Thursday, had distributed bibles in Orange high schools last year without controversy.
"The court has ruled bibles are okay," said Woody Rodriguez, the district counsel for Orange County schools. He contested Engel's interpretation of the law. "I rely on legal books as my guiding light," Rodriguez said. "I've got to follow what the court order said."
Based on that ruling by a U.S. district court in Florida, Orange required the bibles to be placed on tables in student areas by pre-screened volunteers who were not allowed to sit at the table or approach students.
But Daniel Koster, a 17-year-old senior at Wekiva High School, said there were adults and a student from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes sitting at a table at his school, and he saw them talk to students. There were two tables, Koster said, one directly outside the cafeteria and one inside, near the serving line. Rodriguez said he would investigate.
"I should be able to go to class without being pressured by Christian groups to join them," said Koster, who is president of the Wekiva Atheist and Secular Alliance. He said it was impossible to avoid the table. "It is being pushed on you because you have to go to school and you have to encounter it — unless you want to be hungry all day."
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said there may be a double standard at work.
"If this action was taken by a Muslim group placing the Koran on tables, I'm sure there would be some uproar about it," Musri said. "We're better without it," he said of the handouts.
But Atif Fareed, chairman of American Muslim Community Centers based in Longwood, was more open to the idea. "More power to the Christians if they want to go out there and spread the Word," he said. "People need more religion in their lives, not less."
Fareed has participated in efforts to put Korans in libraries and hotel rooms in Las Vegas, but would not push to give out Islam's holy book here. "We would rather have a dialogue than hand out literature," he said.
The atheist groups will be able to put their own materials on tables once their volunteers have background checks and their choice of literature is screened by the legal department for discriminatory or offensive content, Rodriguez said.
EllenBeth Wachs, president of Humanists of Florida, said she welcomes the chance to inform students about secular humanism. She is collaborating with Williamson, of the Freethought group, who has proposed distributing two brochures: one about sex and obscenity in the bible, the other about atheism.
"We're going to give our alternative viewpoint," Wachs said. "And if we give our viewpoint, the Satanists need to give their alternative viewpoint. And the Zoroastrians need to give their alternative viewpoint — and the Buddhists," she said. "Do you see the problem? Where does it end?"
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