Oregon Schools Change Rule Barring Religious Material

Bend-La Pine Schools recently cut a policy related to distribution of religious texts, a move one man hopes will allow religious groups more access to students.

John Shepherd, a Sisters resident, has argued with district officials for much of the last 18 months to eliminate language specifically barring distribution of religious material.

He was pleased with the district's change, which was made last week, but it may not have the kind of effect he hoped. A district official said Monday the policy change treats religious groups like other outside groups. The policy will not allow the distribution of any literature, including religious material, by outside groups, during school hours.

The now-eliminated regulation read, "The distribution of religious texts or portions thereof to students on school property by outside organizations cannot legally be permitted."

The issue dates at least back to March 2008, when about a dozen teddy bears with tags containing religious messages were given out at a Bend High School assembly. The district eventually removed the tags and said the distribution of the bears with religious messages was a mistake.

That shouldn't happen now, argued Shepherd. With the policy change, a flier for a religious group, he said, is now like one for any other group at the school.

"Religious literature has the same standing as every other type of literature," Shepherd said.

The effect, however, may be muted.

According to Deputy Superintendent John Rexford, the schools already limit any outside group from giving materials to students during school hours. Groups can rent space for events outside of the school day, Rexford said.

"This has no effect on our practice," Rexford said.

The district removed the language because it couldn't find a consistent legal opinion from the state attorney general, the Department of Education or its own lawyers, Rexford said.

According to spokesman Jake Weigler, the Oregon Department of Education does not give districts legal advice. But, in general, if a school allows outside groups access to students, it must do so evenly.

Federal courts, he said, have held "that access must be provided on an equitable basis."

Instead of a specific rule about religious materials, Rexford said, another one now governs how the district handles materials from outside groups.

"That (regulation) means no outside group gets to distribute materials to students during school hours," Rexford said.

Other school districts in the state take a similar approach to Bend-La Pine's, according to David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. Schools must, he said, be neutral toward religion.

If schools ban all groups from handing out materials, they can avoid having a bias toward any groups at all, he said.

"The overarching requirement ... is that public schools should not be advancing religion in general and certainly not any particular religious denomination," Fidanque said.

Regardless of the access religious groups have to schools, getting the language out of the regulations was a victory, Shepherd said.

"(I worked) for Christians to have equal access," Shepherd said.