Settlement with Christian group over bible distribution opens door for other materials in Collier schools

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— Bibles aren’t to be the only religious materials available in Collier County public schools on Religious Freedom Day. Secular and other religious materials are also to be available the Collier County School Board assured in a vote Thursday night.

Board members approved a settlement with World Changers of Florida, a local Christian organization seeking to distribute the Bibles, resolving the World Changers’ lawsuit against the Collier County School Board and Superintendent Dennis Thompson.

The agreement allows World Changers to leave Bibles in Collier high schools on Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16 and also leaves the district paying for the attorney’s fees.

“We’re definitely pleased with that development and eager to participate in the forum created by that,” said Horatio Mihet, an attorney representing World Changers.

World Changers of Florida President Jerry Rutherford had distributed Bibles pay placing them on a table and being present as students had the opportunity to pick them or not on Religious Freedom Day. Guidelines on religious materials were outlined in the Peck v. Upshur County Board of Education case stating that the tables with Bibles were to be unmanned so students would not feel watched or pressured to take or leave the materials.

Mihet had told the Daily News in September that Rutherford only had wanted to be present to set up and take down the table.

However, Rutherford’s passivity was disputed by the School District Attorney Jon Fihsbane.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court in Fort Myers in July is officially settled with the Board’s decision Thursday.

Following that decision, the School Board adjusted its policies to make it clear that Bibles aren’t the only materials that may be available on Religious Freedom Day.

Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Separation of Church and State, rallied to have the language made clearer about the day being for more than just bibles.

“The general tenor of the revised policy is that it is only allowing a forum for religious organizations to present only materials of a religious nature,” wrote Douglass Wilson, president of the Collier County ACLU in a letter to the School Board dated Oct. 16.

“If that is the intent, it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion by the government,” Wilson said.

The School Board decided, following that input, to allow secular and other non-Christian materials to be available.

“We still have a few concerns,” Wilson said following the meeting without clarifying what those were.

The policy changes resulting from the settlement will require a second public meeting, likely in November.

“We may still address those at the next meeting,” Wilson said.

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