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Atheists force 59J to defend open forum

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After Gideon Bibles were made available to students in Delta County schools, Delta County Joint School District #50 fielded complaints from the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, a member of a national nonprofit organization, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF).

School district attorney Aaron Clay responded to the complaints on the behalf of the school district. He explained the school district policy that makes available to students noncurricular material such as flyers from the Girl/Boy Scouts and registration information about community athletic programs. Before any noncurricular materials are placed in the schools, the literature must go through an approval process. Examples of "unacceptable" materials include hate literature, obscene or pornographic materials, or commercial advertising without any educational value. In all cases, distribution must take place outside of school time and outside of classrooms.

As a public school district, Clay explained, 50J treats all noncurricular materials equally, and must remain neutral on the issue of religion. "If we open the facility to anybody, we open it to everybody," he explained during a recent school board work session. "We have to treat everybody the same."

In response, FFRF sent a formal letter requesting the distribution of its materials, including a brochure, "It's Okay to Not Believe in God," authored by the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers. The Western Colorado Atheists then went to local Facebook message boards, seeking help with the distribution of its "atheist and Satanic" materials in the schools. The message quickly spread throughout the county, prompting concerned parents to phone the school district with questions.

Though the details are still being worked out, the school district confirmed the materials will be made available, possibly on April 1, in all Delta County middle and high schools. They will not be placed in students' hands, but students will have the option of picking them up if they choose.

"As a district we believe that our mission is to provide information to our students and teach them to think critically," assistant superintendent Kurt Clay said. "We want to be able to get information to our students that will be meaningful and help them. With this belief comes some consequences."

The other option is prohibiting noncurricular materials altogether, and that is the stated goal of FRFF.

A letter to the school district states: "Please note two important things. First, DCSD 50J is not required to maintain this open forum and is free to close it rather than allow FFRF to distribute materials. That is the preferred solution for all the groups submitting literature. We do not think schools should be a battleground for religious ideas. But when schools allow the Gideons to prey on children, their message of eternal damnation for any who don't believe in their god must be countered.

"Second, public schools have previously attempted to deny FFRF permission to distribute literature included on this list. That resulted in a lawsuit that cost the Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools nearly $90,000 and they ended up approving all the literature for distribution anyway. Shortly after approving all the literature they closed the literature distribution forum -- what FFRF had been asking for (and what FFRF has been asking DCSD 50J for) from the beginning."

Kurt Clay stated, "The district still believes that making noncurricular material available to our students is the correct thing to do."

"We must follow and support the Constitution," superintendent Caryn Gibson said, although she has rejected some FFRF materials as not age appropriate (a satanic coloring book) or "pornographic" (a brochure with Adam and Eve on the front).

The letter from FFRF also alleges bullying of nonreligious students at Delta Middle School, and suggests the school take immediate action to deal with the issue of retaliation or bullying on the basis of religion.

"Every day, we really try to do what's best for our kids, their families, our staff and our communities," Gibson said.

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FFRF, Freedom from religion, religion, School
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