NAPLES — A local Christian organization is suing the Collier County School District for prohibiting Bible distribution on its campuses.
World Changers of Florida filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in Fort Myers challenging the district’s decision to prohibit its members from passing out free Bibles on Religious Freedom Day, which is held each Jan. 16.
World Changers of Florida President Jerry Rutherford has handed out Bibles at the schools for two years, after former School Board Attorney Richard Withers said the district must provide access to groups wishing to pass out Bibles, subject to reasonable, nonjudgmental limitations as to the time, space and place for the event to occur.
The Collier County School Board’s policy requires nonprofit organizations to obtain approval of the superintendent and a Community Request Committee, whose members are appointed by the superintendent, in order to distribute literature on school campuses.
The policy also states that requests must be “carefully reviewed to ensure that such activities promote student interests, provide educational benefit to the students, and do not exploit the school system, its employees, students or parents,” according to the lawsuit.
Rutherford petitioned the Community Request Committee on Nov. 10, 2008, to make Bibles available to high school and to middle school students on Jan. 16, 2009.
Rutherford received a letter from then-Assistant Superintendent John Kelly on Jan. 13, 2009, which said Kelly, the chairman of the committee, had been advised by District Attorney Jon Fishbane that the request could not be considered by the committee.
At the time of the denial, Thompson told the Daily News the district had received a new legal opinion and was working through the issue.
Rutherford made another request Feb. 13, 2009, to distribute Bibles on March 15, 2009, at the schools. This time, his letter went not to the Community Request Committee, but to Thompson. While Rutherford’s letter was included in the lawsuit, Thompson’s response, if any, was not.
In the suit, Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm representing the World Changers of Florida, said other nonprofit groups have been allowed to distribute literature on campuses, including military recruiters, Golden Gate American Little League, and the Humane Society of Naples. The lawsuit claims World Changers was denied its distribution request because the district wants to censor its message.
The district “denied World Changers access for no other reason than the religious content and viewpoint of the literature it wishes to distribute, specifically Bibles,” the lawsuit states. “This unequal treatment, based upon the religious nature of the literature World Changers wishes to distribute, is unconstitutional content-based discrimination, because World Changers’ materials otherwise fit within the parameters [the district] set for the forum.”
Liberty Counsel argues that the First Amendment prohibits government religious speech, not private religious speech or literature.
World Changers is seeking permission to distribute Bibles and nominal damages, which include attorneys’ fees.
Rutherford could not be reached Thursday evening for comment.
Though Thompson said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he had not seen it, he said the district has denied all religious materials from being distributed at its schools.