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Judge orders halt to distribution of Bibles in public schools in rural Mo. district

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ST. LOUIS - A rural school district's long-standing practice of allowing the distribution of Bibles to grade school students is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.

An attorney for the southeastern Missouri school district said Wednesday he will appeal the judge's injunction against the practice.

For more than three decades, the South Iron School District in Annapolis, 120 miles southwest of St. Louis in the heart of the Bible Belt, allowed representatives of Gideons International to give away Bibles in fifth-grade classrooms.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit two years ago on behalf of four sets of parents. In August, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction against the practice.

The district altered its policy, saying the Gideons and others were still welcome to distribute Bibles or other literature before or after school or during lunch break, but not in classrooms.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ruled both practices were illegal and granted a permanent injunction.

The purpose of both practices "is the promotion of Christianity by distributing Bibles to elementary school students," Perry wrote. "The policy has the principle or primary effect of advancing religion by conveying a message of endorsement to elementary school children."

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based law group that represented the school district, said he would appeal.

"I think the current policy creates an open forum that allows secular as well as religious persons or groups to access the forum to distribute information," Staver said. "The court has clearly misread the First Amendment and the cases regarding free speech."

The parents who sued are Christian but believe religious beliefs should be taught in the home, not school, said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.

The South Iron district has about 500 students in the grade school and South Iron High School.

Superintendent Brad Crocker was out of the office Wednesday and did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn., distributes Bibles in more than 80 languages and 180 countries, according to its Web site. A spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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