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Court Cases Fail to Halt Gideons' Zeal : Evangelism: Several rulings have barred the organization from distributing Bibles in some public schools. But the group has quietly persisted in its mission.

September 11, 1993|From Associated Press

Although the Gideons are sometimes stopped by court rulings from distributing Bibles at public schools, the century-old organization still is going strong, dispensing the holy book far and wide.

"We make the word of God available to those folks who want it in various environments," said Wendell McClinton, executive director of Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn.

It distributed 38.5 million Bibles last year in 156 countries and 70 languages, including 7.9 million in the United States.

"In the former Soviet Iron Curtain countries, we're distributing over 400,000 Bibles a month," McClinton said. Seventeen-million Bibles have been delivered there since the Berlin Wall came down. "We consider it an open door."

The organization provides Bibles in hotel rooms, hospitals, penal institutions, colleges and military facilities. Local Gideon units sometimes try, against obstacles, to supply Bibles to public school students.

But school distribution has run into sporadic legal blockades.

Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to accept a Rensselaer, Ind., school district's appeal against a federal appeals court ruling that Gideons could not give Bibles to fifth-grade students.

Earlier, a U.S. district court judge, noting that non-religious groups such as Boy Scouts and 4-H clubs were allowed to distribute literature to students, had allowed such distribution.

But the appeals court rejected the practice, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene.

Michael Whitehead, Southern Baptist social-concerns counsel, said the high court has not banned all Bible distributions at public schools. He noted that the Rensselaer case involved Gideons entering elementary classrooms.

"Perhaps distribution in high schools or in hallways or with parental consent would still be permissible," he said.

However, this is something McClinton won't talk about, or any of the questions it involves. On any aspect of the touchy subject of Bible distribution in public schools, he insists on a firm "no comment." It is apparently an unsettled matter among Gideons in various communities.

McClinton, 60, on the Gideons staff for 30 years and executive director for five years, said the organization receives a steady flow of letters expressing appreciation for Bibles placed in hotel rooms and elsewhere.

"We receive communications every day from people all over the world who have had a blessing as a result of the Word of God being available," he said. That response "comes from all directions."

Gideons was started nearly 100 years ago, in 1898, named for the courageous warrior portrayed in Judges. With a small band of 300, he drove out of Israel a huge, oppressive force of idolatrous Midianites.

Although the organization has a paid staff of only 60, it has 120,000 volunteers of various denominations, about 70,000 of them in the United States and 50,000 in foreign countries.

"Everything we do is done by volunteers," McClinton said.

The organization has a substantial budget, $50 million annually, is uses to produce its own Bibles through contracts with 25 U.S. printing plants and 18 abroad.

"We have the Bibles printed to our specifications," McClinton said, noting that the books are printed in English in both modern and King James versions, and in various other translations in other languages.

In the years since the Gideons was formed, the organization calculates it has distributed more than 600 million Bibles.

Only in the last quarter-century have the Gideons encountered difficulties with providing Bibles in public schools, but the organization generally has avoided lawsuits, leaving such actions, if any, up to school districts. School officials had pressed the Rensselaer case.

In other recent situations, the Gideons said they would stop passing out Bibles in a Klamath County school district in Oregon after a parent complained, and said they would stop such distribution in Rapides Parish public schools in Louisiana after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit.

Observers say the Gideons generally halt such distribution temporarily where complaints are made.

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