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Context: There was some random guy handing out pocket bibles on the road path leading out of the school a few weeks ago. I don't think they were on school property, but they were close if that is important. They were holding out bibles, but never forced or asked anyone to take it. They did not show up ever again.

The next day, some kids were arguing that the bible guy was indoctrinating us into their religion.

Given that this guy wasn't an employee of the school, wasn't in the school itself, and that the school was public rather than private, would this be a violation of the 1st amendment of the United States? Specifically the part that states that the government should not promote one religion over another.

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    It sure sounds like you answered your own question convincingly. What part are you unclear on?
    – abelenky
    May 22, 2023 at 19:46
  • @abelenky I’m unclear on what the conclusion is
    – Some Guy
    May 22, 2023 at 20:41
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    What makes you think the guy was affiliated with the government? May 23, 2023 at 11:26

3 Answers 3

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The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not prohibit people with no affiliation with the government from trying to convert people to their religion in a way not endorsed by a government official or agency.

It could be that there is some content neutral prohibition on strangers accosting young school children if that person is so persistent that it amounts to content neutral harassment, or that the person might actually be a sex offender prohibited from contacting children. But, the facts of the question don't seem to compel this conclusion.

Even if it violates any law to do this, it is not a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

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    "does not prohibit": in fact, the free speech clause of the same amendment protects that activity.
    – phoog
    May 23, 2023 at 12:15
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"Given that this guy wasn't an employee of the school, and wasn't in the school itself" why would there be a First Amendment violation??

What part of this situation even vaguely looks like "The Government" is promoting religion?

From your description, a private citizen, in a public space ("I don't think they were on school property") was exercising Free Speech, and was doing so somewhat politely ("never forced or asked anyone to take it.")

Where is there even a question? This is obviously protected speech.

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Uh no. Not only does the establishment clause NOT prohibit the government promoting religion, bit it EXCLUSIVELY applies to the government.

So a person not affiliated with the school, outside school grounds (or even inside school grounds) can hand out bibles all they want. Even a teacher could hand out bibles AS LONG AS the teacher doesn't require the pupils to become a member of a specific religion. The teacher CAN hand out bibles as a teaching aid in comparative religion for example, he just can't mandate that the children go to church and pay tithes.

That's a major flaw in many peoples' understanding of the establishment clause (mainly people on the left, but also some on the right), it does NOT prohibit religious expression, it only prohibits MANDATING OTHERS from joining a religion, AKA establishing a state mandated religion. This was put into the constitution to prevent a situation arising like it had in Britain where the government outlawed all religions except the Church of England and made membership of that religion mandatory for everyone. ORIGINALLY it didn't even apply to the individual states, only to the federal government, and several states did indeed have a state religion!

So no, handing out bibles doesn't violate the first amendment. In fact prohibiting that person from handing out bibles WOULD violate the first amendment as it'd restrict their freedom to express their opinion, thus their freedom of speech.

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  • A public school teacher can't hand out bibles in the school, however, because in that context the teacher is the government. The prohibition against promoting religion applies to distributing literature and other activities that fall far short of mandating church attendance or financial support.
    – phoog
    May 23, 2023 at 12:20
  • If the school allows someone to proselytize on school grounds, that might also be considered promoting the religion. But in the given case it's off school grounds ,so no problem.
    – Barmar
    May 23, 2023 at 13:06
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    That said, a public school teacher is allowed to exercise tenants of their religion while on public school grounds, so long as they are not engaging in activates to convert students or that such practices are not disruptive to student education. Students may join the teacher in such observances so long as such participation was not coerced by the teacher in question.
    – hszmv
    May 23, 2023 at 14:24
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    @phoog no, that'd depend on WHY they're being handed out. In the context of a comparative religion curiculum it'd be fine, as long as no specific religion is forced on the children as "the one true religion". You're falling into the very trap I mention of thinking that merely talking about a religion is "establishing a state religion", which it isn't
    – jwenting
    May 23, 2023 at 17:52
  • @Barmar only if they limit such actions to that one religion only, and bar all others from doing so.
    – jwenting
    May 23, 2023 at 17:53

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