The delegates who created the Idaho Constitution a century ago did not consider the Bible as a sectarian tract, and therefore distributing Bibles in schools cannot be grounds for withholding state funds from school districts, Attorney General Jim Jones says.
". . . no public official could justifiably cut off funding to a school district that permitted the distribution of Bibles," Jones said in a letter to Jerry Evans, state superintendent of public instruction.Several Idaho school districts have been involved recently in school-religion issues. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal court lawsuit against the Madison School District over prayer at school functions. Officials of the Grangeville School District have defended their practice of allowing commencement prayers and distribution of Bibles to elementary school children.
The Rockland School District agreed to stop such practices, to settle another lawsuit.
Evans asked Jones recently whether the Idaho Constitution would empower him to cut off state funding to schools that allow the distribution of Bibles.
No, said Jones, although it's entirely possible that the U.S. Constitution might.
The attorney general said Friday he researched the proceedings of the 1889 convention that adopted the Idaho Constitution and concluded its members did not consider the Bible a sectarian tract.
"The long and short of it is that the Bible was not regarded as a sectarian tract that would be prohibited from use or introduction in the public schools," Jones said.
He said that guideline should be applied only to the question of whether state law would affect funding of a district that permitted distribution of Bibles in public schools.
"It may be that the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the federal courts, would restrict or prohibit such activity, but that question is beyond the limited scope of this letter," Jones wrote to Evans.
He said the constitutional convention had a debate on July 23, 1889, whether the Bible would be considered sectarian material.
"While the delegates who debated the issue did not unanimously conclude that the Bible was not a sectarian tract, it was certainly regarded as non-sectarian by the sponsor of the amendment," Jones said. "Other delegates who took part in the discussion also believed that the Bible was non-sectarian and not prohibited from usage in the public schools."
Meanwhile, at Rexburg, accounts have been set up at four banks so area residents can contribute money toward the district's defense of the ACLU lawsuit.
Madison Superintendent Chris Mattocks said people can make tax-deductible contributions to the Madison School Fund, which will be used for lawyer fees. Any money left over will be used to establish a foundation for educational needs, he said.
He said an accountant has advised him that people can receive an itemized deduction for contributions and also can claim a state tax credit.
The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of several unidentified children and asked federal court to bar the school district from holding prayer at graduation and prior to athletic contests.
Jack Van Valkenburgh, Boise, director for the ACLU, also said a lawsuit against the Grangeville School District is inevitable if it continues to sanction religious practices in school.
School board members say they feel there is a legitimate question involved and they will not back down until so ordered by a court.