Bible distribution, stranger danger has Governor French parents upset

News-DemocratNovember 14, 2013 

BND

— A Bible distribution blitz by The Gideons International outside of Governor French Academy has upset some parents who do not want their children to receive Bibles or interact with strangers.

Jennifer Hoffman said her 6-year-old son came home from school in late October with a pocket New Testament Bible given to him by a Gideons volunteer during school hours, as he walked from one school building to another.

"I don't want somebody passing on their beliefs to my child," Hoffman said. "I pay money to send my child to this school ... Yes, I believe in God, but I will raise my child my way."

Kevin Higgerson, a Gideons volunteer, said Governor French is one of many locations where Gideons distribute Bibles and the school became a distribution site about three years ago.

"The whole idea is to give everybody access to the word of God," Higgerson said. "The Bibles are free and the students do not have to accept them ... Some parents support our work and donate to our cause."

The Christian organization distributes Bibles at public schools in the metro-east. The group, established in 1898, also works to place Bibles in hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and jails.

Higgerson said he stands outside Governor French once a year, for about 15 minutes. He said he notifies school officials, out of courtesy, before he starts to hand out Bibles.

Higgerson said it's not a safety concern because Gideons volunteers go through background checks and the children are supervised by school staff. Also, Higgerson said the volunteers are not asking anything of the children in return.

Phil Paeltz, headmaster at Governor French, said students have to walk about 75 feet down West Main Street to get from one part of the school to another.

"A number of our parents are opposed to the fact ... and view it as an intrusion of their parental responsibilities," Paeltz said.

Paeltz said the situation is a "legal balancing act" for authorities: What are the rights of parents versus the Gideons' rights to free speech and religion?

Hoffman and two other parents approached city leaders Wednesday at an Ordinance and Legal Review Committee meeting to ask for help.

These parents want the city to enforce a school trespassing ordinance that makes it unlawful for someone to remain within 250 feet of a school if officials ask the person to leave.

Belleville City Attorney Garrett Hoerner said the school trespassing ordinance is a "very old ordinance" approved in 1981 that might conflict with more recent Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment.

Higgerson presented aldermen with a letter from attorneys representing The Gideons International that cites a Supreme Court decision on citizens' rights to express religious views.

"...The public sidewalk adjacent to school grounds may not be declared off limits for expressive activity by members of the public," the letter stated.

Higgerson said Gideons have 107 groups in Illinois and distribute Bibles in more than 196 countries, including more than 400,000 Bibles in Africa.

Yet in America, Higgerson said, the Gideons are pushed to the public sidewalk to share God's word.

Alishia and Ray Randolph said their concerns do not stem from animosity against any one religion or specifically the Gideons volunteer.

They just want to protect their 5-year-old daughter from strangers and they want the city to clarify whether the ordinance is enforceable.

Instead of Bibles, a stranger could stand on the sidewalk and give out poison or GPS tracking chips, Randolph hypothesized.

Some of the parents and aldermen also wondered why Gideons want to distribute Bibles to minors and whether they need parental permission.

"This is not about religion," Ray Randolph said. "I served 10 years in the military to defend our freedom and the Constitution ... This is about a stranger interacting with my 5-year-old ... And, she is just now learning to read cereal boxes. She is not going to read that Bible."

Randolph said the Bible was designed to appeal to children. The Bible her daughter received has an orange cover and some of the writing is in rainbow colors.

Randolph said that parents should have the right to teach their children about religion when they believe the time is right.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella said he knows the Gideons have rights, and he will uphold their rights, but he personally would not dare approach a child and hand the child anything without the parent's permission.

"I find it contrary to the laws of common courtesy," Kinsella said.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said the city has to apply ordinances consistently.

Hult asked: If the Gideons cannot stand on the sidewalk and hand Bibles to children, then can candy be distributed during parades that pass in front of the school? And can businesses hand out coupons to students?

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson asked Higgerson if the Gideons distribute Bibles at other schools and Catholic schools.

Higgerson said Catholic school students already have access to Bibles.

Paeltz said that he will pursue legal action if the Gideons only are targeting Governor French students.

About 170 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, attend the academy.

Paeltz said 80 percent of the student population could have easily received Bibles said the Gideons offered every student a Bible.

"I guess we're being discriminated against because we're not a religious school."

Paeltz said the first time the Gideons appeared, they were on school property before they moved to the sidewalk.

At the time, Paeltz did not know about the city ordinance and thought there was nothing the school could do once the Gideons were on public property.

Paeltz said he will ask the Gideons to leave if they return now that he knows about the ordinance.

Paeltz said he does not object to the Gideons' literature.

"I believe in God and I support a person's right to express their beliefs," Paeltz said. "Parents ask me to protect their children from the moment they drop them off to when they pick them up. There's a small window here where I do not have complete control over protecting their children, and I don't think that's right and they don't think that's right."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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