An ongoing debate about allowing students to distribute Bibles during school lunch periods dominated a Mechanicsburg Area School Board meeting Tuesday night, attracting an estimated crowd of more than 80 people that spilled into an adjoining hallway at Elmwood Academy.
Members of the Christians in Action Student Club at Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School said they requested in the first week of November permission to hand out Bibles during a lunch period earlier this school year, but high school principal David Harris and other administrators told them they could not do so.
Student club members said they contacted the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg, which describes itself on its website as a public-interest law firm affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a nonprofit organization funded through tax-deductible contributions that works to preserve religious liberty, promote marriage and the family, and protect human life.
ILC representatives issued a letter Dec. 31 to the school district that said: “The Bible Club student leaders have informed us that their request to pass out Bibles to their friends during noninstructional time during the school day has been denied by the principal, Mr. David Harris. Based on the information below, Mechanicsburg Area School District’s refusal to permit the students to distribute Bibles to fellow students constitutes a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the federal Equal Access Act (EAA).”
The letter also said: “We ask that you provide a written confirmation by Jan. 7 of 1) your intention to permit students to distribute Bibles during noninstructional time in the future from the superintendent and/or school board; and 2) that you have distributed the information below to administrators and teaching staff.”
The ILC then announced it would send representatives to the district’s regularly scheduled school board meeting this past Tuesday night.
The result was a public discussion and no definitive answer from the school district about ILC’s request.
Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the Independence Law Center, said after Tuesday’s school board meeting that he “remains hopeful” about coming to an agreement with the school district about the issue. “I believe the school district doesn’t have all the information at this point,” he said.
“This is not about children having religious literature in our schools. They are permitted to have religious literature,” Mechanicsburg Superintendent Mark Leidy told ABC27 News after the meeting. “This is an issue of distribution of that literature.”
Mechanicsburg officials did not respond on the record to an email request Wednesday to clarify details from the meeting and ILC’s news releases and released no other responses after Leidy’s comments to ABC27 News.
It’s unclear if Mechanicsburg school district’s policy allows students to distribute materials — religious or otherwise — during a school day even if a formal request is made.
Although more than a dozen people voiced conflicting views about the matter during Tuesday’s meeting, school board president Dawn Merris thanked the crowd for its “respectfulness.”
Merris said the school board met with district counsel prior to Tuesday’s meeting to compose “an appropriate response” to Independence Law Center’s Dec. 31 correspondence with the district.
Merris didn’t say exactly how the school board will respond to the requests, but said, “We haven’t suggested anything with any broad-based policy change.”
In a news release issued Tuesday afternoon, the district said, “We have investigated the allegations from ILC and will provide a response directly to the organization.”
“I understand what you’re going through,” Samek told the school board during Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t think you understand what’s going on. What is the issue? Students have the right to pass out literature during noninstructional time. The heart of the issue is, can we pass this out during the school day?”
Two students who addressed the board Tuesday, but asked not to be identified, said student club leaders, not the club’s adviser, consulted the Independence Law Center about the club’s dispute with the district.
Students said that they were denied permission by the district at the beginning of the school year to post Christians in Action club flyers that contained meeting times and locations and also contained a Bible verse. Students said they then contacted the ILC about the matter, the ILC intervened, and the district reportedly allowed the club to post the flyers with the Bible quotation.
The student speakers also told the school board that they believed school administrators were unconstitutionally suppressing their freedom of expression and right to share their faith by prohibiting the distribution of Bibles during school lunch periods. They “simply want this wrong to be righted,” the students said.
While some attendees of Tuesday’s meeting said they supported the students passing out Bibles during school lunch, others said they disagreed.
“It’s very intimidating, even though it’s not intended to be that way,” said Rabbi Carl Choper, of Temple Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg. “There are ways to encourage dialogue and mutual learning, but relying on random interactions leaves the door open for misunderstanding and intimidation.”
The school district’s news release issued Tuesday morning said the ILC was misleading people with its claim against the district.
“The ILC press release is misleading,” the district said in its news release. “The student group never submitted a formal request for distribution of Bibles, and the ILC never contacted the building administration to discuss the issue. Instead of submitting a request and working with the high school administration in a collaborative manner, the ILC’s approach has evoked negative emotions that divide our school and community.”
In response to what the ILC called the district’s “misleading letter,” ILC issued a news release stating, “The students went through the process of formally requesting permission and Principal (David) Harris wrote a response to that request.”
The law center included an excerpt from an email allegedly written by Harris to the school’s Bible Club adviser in which Harris reportedly said a student is not permitted to hand out any literature during the school day but may submit a formal request to distribute it outside of the school day.
“The students asked for permission to sit at a table in lunch, have a poster for students to sign and write something they’re thankful for and to offer Bibles to those approaching the table. The school gave permission to sit at the table and to have their poster, but denied permission to hand out Bibles — not just during lunch but at any time during the school day,” according to an email response from Dan Bartkowiak, director of communications for Pennsylvania Family Institute, who also serves as spokesman for the ILC.