By SHELLY WILKISON
Twin fifth grade sisters say they found themselves trying to explain their Jewish faith when they refused to accept bibles being distributed in the Liberty Hill Intermediate School May 4.
The students’ mother, Evelyn Pereira, said she believes the school violated her daughters’ civil rights when it allowed the Gideons to distribute New Testament bibles to students from a classroom next to the cafeteria during the lunch hours.
Faced with the possibility of future legal action, Liberty Hill school district officials would not comment this week on the incident.
The school district received a written complaint from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation earlier this week advising that the district had violated federal law when it allowed the Gideons International organization to distribute bibles on campus.
Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart told The Independent that due to the “pending complaint,” he was unable to discuss the matter.
Mrs. Pereira said her family is “half-Jewish and half-Catholic, but we’re practicing Judaism.
“I took it as a personal offense against my religion,” she said. “And the moment they passed out bibles, they transformed that public school into a religious school.”
Mrs. Pereira said she was not informed ahead of time that bibles would be distributed at school. She said she was taken aback when she learned that her daughters found themselves having to explain to other students why they didn’t want the bibles.
“They got in the car and told me that men were in the school passing out bibles,” Mrs. Pereira said, at which time she turned her vehicle around and went inside to see the Principal.
When she complained to Principal Kathy Major, she was provided with a schedule for the week that referenced the event.
Mrs. Major also referred her to the Superintendent, whom she said authorized the bible distribution. Mrs. Pereira said she tried to meet with Hart after leaving the campus, but was told he was not available and she could air her concerns during a three-minute public comment time during a school board meeting. The Board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. May 21.
Mrs. Pereira said she and her husband were attracted by the promise of a highly-rated school system when they made the decision to leave Belton and bought a house in the Liberty Hill school district. They enrolled their children in early April.
“We’re excited about being here. A good school system is important to us and everyone working with our daughters has been great,” she said. “This is nothing personal. I have nothing against the school people, but the system disrespected our children. I never expected this.”
After Mrs. Pereira shared her concerns with The Independent and an Austin television station, Hart responded to the station’s request for an interview with a written statement sent by email. Hart shared the statement with The Independent as well.
“Liberty Hill ISD recognizes that the United States Constitution requires that all public schools balance the requirement that we do not endorse religion with the requirement that we not prohibit the free exercise of religion,” he wrote. “Public school students have the right to, on their own initiative, pray or meditate voluntarily, silently and non-disruptively in school, and it is also our obligation to also ensure that our students do not feel coerced into participating in any religious activities during the school day.”
Liberty Hill United Methodist Church Pastor Rev. Randall Hilburn said he is not concerned about the distribution of bibles in schools. He has experience working with some Gideons and he has “never seen them force bibles on kids. If they were forcing them to accept it, I would understand the concern.”
“The school put them (her children) in a position where they had to explain why they didn’t accept the bible,” Mrs. Pereira said. “They are too young to know the differences in religions.”
Attorney Stephanie Schmitt with the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin, said the non-profit organization that works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of state and church is awaiting the response of the school district to its complaint before it proceeds with any legal action.
Mrs. Pereira said “to make sure she wasn’t over-reacting” she contacted various organizations including Ms. Schmitt’s organization and the American Civil Liberties Union. She said she wanted to confirm that she understood the issue from a legal perspective.
“When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message,” Ms. Schmitt wrote in the letter to LHISD Board President Tony Stephens. “Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion and to protect the rights of conscience of young and impressionable students. In allowing Gideons to distribute bibles to elementary school students, LHISD is impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its stamp of approval on the religious messages contained in the bible.”
She referred to legal cases she says affirms the position that the school district was wrong to permit the distribution of religious literature. Both of the cases described in the complaint involved the distribution of the New Testament by the Gideons.
Ms. Schmitt said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has more than 800 members in Texas and more than 18,000 across the country.
Mrs. Pereira, who said she is a member of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Jewish religion is not one that sends representatives into schools or other places to solicit new believers.
“We’re not a soliciting religion. We don’t go door to door,” she said. “Most religions don’t go into public schools and solicit to minors.”
Mrs. Pereira said she is not sure whether she will raise the topic with school trustees next week.
“There’s no chance at resolution there, so what use is that?” she said.
“I hope they will stop (allowing bible distribution) and will consider being educated in religion tolerance, and accept that there are other religions out there. They should keep church and state separated as the law states.”