Oklahoma City — After a series of challenges to the distribution of Gideon Bibles in the state's school districts, Oklahoma's attorney general stepped in to defend the practice.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Scott Pruitt announced a new initiative "designed to defend religious freedom and provide support to Oklahoma schools facing intimidation."
"Few things are as sacred and as fundamental to Oklahomans as the constitutional rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion," Pruitt wrote in a letter to school superintendents. "It is a challenging time in our country for those who believe in religious liberty. Our religious freedoms are under constant attack from a variety of groups who seek to undermine our constitutional rights and threaten our founding principles."
Pruitt's initiative comes in response to a letter that the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent to 26 Oklahoma school districts warning them that they may be violating the First Amendment of the Constitution by allowing the distribution of Bibles during the school day.
Lawyers agreed that the foundation's position reflects an accurate application of the law: Public schools may not distribute Bibles.
But Pruitt suggested an out: "Under the United States Constitution, school districts can permit private citizens to distribute to students religious literature, including bibles," he wrote. "To allow private citizens to do so, the school should simply enact a neutral policy that allows equal access for all Oklahomans to engage their free exercise rights."
But as at least one media account pointed out, Pruitt may have inadvertently opened public school doors to atheists, Satanists and others wishing to distribute literature to students.
"If private citizens want to distribute religious material or hold religious services in public schools, the schools must set up an open forum where all religious organizations can participate," said Gary Allison, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Tulsa College of Law.
Pruitt is not alone in trying to bestow the Bible with special standing. Tennessee state legislators on Wednesday advanced a bill to make the Bible the official state book -- a measure the state attorney general in that state declared unconstitutional.
Oklahoma's Bible tussle began earlier this month after a third-grade teacher in Duncan distributed Gideon Bibles to her students. In response, the Church of Ahriman, a Satanist church in Oklahoma City, has asked permission to distribute Satanist literature at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.
When the American Humanist Association threatened to sue, the Duncan school district responded by forbidding teachers or administrators from distributing religious material to their students.
Pruitt suggested that was a step too far.
"Under the U.S. Constitution, school districts can permit private citizens to distribute to students religious literature if the school district has in place a neutral policy that allows equal access for all Oklahomans to engage their free exercise rights," said Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Pruitt.
Meanwhile, Andrew Seidel, legal counsel for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to Pruitt in response: "If the goal of the Oklahoma Attorney General's office is to allow public schools to be used to distribute atheist messages, then this is a brilliant idea."