ATLANTA – When Ed Buckner and his family went to a north Georgia state park to celebrate his son's birthday, he was surprised and concerned to find Bibles in the state-owned cabin he had rented.
An atheist, Buckner believes that no religious literature should be provided in government-owned lodging, and he presented that concern to management at the Amicalola Falls State Park.
Officials told Buckner they would remove the Bibles from all state park resorts while the state attorney general looked into the matter. Not long afterward, however, the AG issued a ruling saying the state was on firm legal ground because it hadn't paid for the books. On Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the Bibles returned.
Deal argued that if the state didn't pay for them, it can't be seen as endorsing them. He also noted that any religious group can donate literature. But his action sparked a string of comments on social media and captured the attention of local news television stations. It also prompted some to question why this hasn't been more of an issue in the U.S. before.
Buckner is pondering his next move. One idea he is considering is to test the state's offer to accept literature from other religions in state-owned lodging. He also said he would be willing to participate if an organization with similar beliefs decides to launch a lawsuit over the issue.
"I think government entanglement with religion is a very dangerous thing," he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "When you go into a state park cabin and the only piece of religious literature there is a Protestant Bible, that suggests the government's endorsed that particular perspective."
But Edward Queen, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and director of the school's Ethics and Servant Leadership program, said he sees no obvious legal grounds for a challenge.
"The fact that you have an inherently sectarian religious document on state property, that in and of itself presents no real challenge if the state has not purchased it," Queen said. "Where it might possibly become an issue is if the state were to refuse to do the same thing for other groups."
Bill Nigut, Southeast regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said people have become accustomed to seeing Gideon Bibles in the nightstands of hotels and motels and that may be why many don't think twice when they see them in state park lodging.
He wonders if more people might object, however, if they came across different religious texts.
"What if it were the Hebrew Bible? What if it were the Koran?" he said. "When you frame it in that context, I think it's a little easier to understand why people who are not Christians could be uncomfortable seeing the Bible in a hotel room."
The Bibles are donated by Gideons International, an evangelical Christian group based in Nashville, Tenn. Gideons spokesman Malcolm Arvin said he didn't know how many Bibles had been donated for distribution in state or national parks, but he doesn't recall ever having heard about it being a problem.
The National Park Service contracts with private operators to run lodging, and it's up to those operators whether they want to put Bibles or other religious documents in the rooms, said Bill Reynolds, assistant regional director for the Southeast. The park service doesn't require or prohibit the provision of Bibles, he said.
William Hunter, a Sunday school teacher who was visiting Georgia's Fort McAllister Historic State Park south of Savannah on Thursday, said he wholeheartedly endorsed having Bibles in state-owned cabins.
"I know that Gideon Bibles have saved people's lives," said Hunter, a retired government civil service worker who sat in the shade outside his camper at the park's campground. "They go into a motel room and are going to blow their brains out. And then they find that Bible."
Hunter keeps a Bible filled with passages he's underlined and notes written in the margins inside his camper. He stashes a second copy in his pickup truck.
Hunter's wife, Nancy, said the Bibles can't hurt nonbelievers but should be available to anyone seeking spiritual comfort.
"That's a problem with the United States today is they're taking Jesus Christ out of so many things," she said.
Making Bibles available on state property was not a problem for park visitor Rebecca Wade, either. A retired saleswoman from Mount Dora, Fla., Wade said she's no fundamentalist, though she tries to live by the Ten Commandments.
"I don't mind the separation between church and state, but people are getting carried away to the point that it's crazy," Wade said. "Nobody's going to pick a Bible up if they don't want to."