Several smiling men in slacks were on hand outside the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Asheville last weekend, passing out small orange Bibles to graduating high school students, their families and other passers-by, before the rehearsals and ceremonies of five Buncombe County high schools.
It was a scenario that has played out over the past four years of graduation ceremonies, according to Cellular Center General Manager Chris Corl.
The men with the Bibles are members of the Gideons, which describes itself as “an Association of Christian business and professional men and their wives dedicated to telling people about Jesus,” according to its website. The group was established in 1898 by two businessmen who began distributing Bibles in hotel rooms. Nowadays, the Gideons distribute Bibles and religious literature worldwide in hotels, hospitals and at outside events.
The Gideons’ presence is perfectly legal, Corl notes, who says he has never received any complaints about the Gideons in his four years on the job.
The men’s activities didn’t stop or slow people in their passage, according to Cecil Crawford, a retired secretary for the Gideons in Avery County.
“I’ve never in my life encountered any bias against handing out Scriptures,” Crawford says. “But now, that does happen, and if it happens, then [we] just don’t do that particular place anymore. We don’t push ourselves onto people. We want people to receive the word, the Scripture, but we don’t push it.
Freedom from religion
Corl doesn’t have a problem with the Gideons. “Just like any other event, like if there were protesters of the circus, or just ‘Joe Schmo’ walking down the street to get to the restaurant, the 6 foot of sidewalk space is sidewalk space, so people can do whatever they wish,” he says. “You see people handing out Bibles randomly on the streets downtown.”
But that all changes a few closer to the Cellular Center entrance, Corl explains. “Once you get into the leased space, if our leasing agent, A-B Tech for example, or a concert promoter, whoever, wants somebody to be removed or asks them not to hand things out, then we ask people to move and go to the sidewalk space.”
The Gideons have not encountered much opposition in Avery County, Crawford says. But the group’s activities did spark debate in Buncombe County Schools in 2012, after the fifth-grade son of Pagan mother Ginger Strivelli came home from a Weaverville school with a Bible distributed at the school by the Gideons. The event resulted in Buncombe County schools adopting a religious policy that states the school board “will neither advance nor inhibit any religion or religious belief, viewpoint, expression or practice.”
Strivelli, who now lives in Egypt, acknowledges that the Gideons’ sidewalk activities may be legal. But she argues that it’s inappropriate for a group to hand out Bibles on public property outside school events. “My objection has always been that it is misusing public property or public school events, which should, as part of the government, be free from any favoritism for any one faith group — as it could be seen as the government promoting that faith over others, which is, of course, unconstitutional,” she wrote in an email.
Strivelli also believes handing out Bibles outside school events is different from leaving Bibles in hotels. “[Hotels] are not government-run public services, and the hotel owners and operators could choose to promote that one faith or they could chose to put a Quran, a Rig Veda, a Mayan Codex and an Egyptian Book of the Dead in the nightstand drawers with the Gideon Bibles and be more inclusive,” Strivelli wrote.
Strivelli also thinks it is unnecessary for the Gideons to be handing out Bibles at a time when anyone interested can easily obtain one at any of the hundreds of Christian churches in Buncombe County.
The national nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation objects to the Gideons’ practice of handing out Bibles near school events. “It is unfortunate that [the Gideons], among other evangelizing groups, view schools as ripe territory for recruitment. These organizations take advantage of truancy laws and the captive audience of schoolchildren to proselytize young students,” according to the foundation’s website.
The good book
Some people waiting outside the U.S. Cellular Center spoke in support of the Gideons’ activities. Candler native Michele Burnette, noting that her uncle is a member of the Gideons, said, “I think it’s great that they do that, because that’s what Christians are supposed to do — to let people know about Jesus.”
Cherryl Roberts of Flat Creek says she supported the handing out of Bibles, as long as they are the King James Version. “When we were kids, we got the New Testaments from school, it didn’t hurt anything,” Roberts says. “And sometimes that’s the only thing they ever read.”
Frank Vance, vice president of the Gideons in Avery County, says he has never encountered opposition to handing out Bibles. He adds he wouldn’t be worried if there were opposition. “Especially here in the mountains, there’s not a problem at all,” Vance says. “I’m sure that [in] a lot of secular areas you may have some problems, but it’s like anything else…. If the Hare Krishnas want to give their literature out, we don’t say anything. I mean, the Bible will stand on its own against all of that stuff, so I don’t worry about it.”
Cap and gown
Tony Baldwin, superintendent of Buncombe County Schools, explains that his focus was to make sure the graduates cross the stage. “Really, our focus — especially with the graduation ceremony, and all the parents, the students — our focus is on what happens, once they’re inside those doors, inside that building,” he says.
But Baldwin acknowledges the importance of keeping church and state separate, particularly in the areas around public schools. He noted that schools must stay in accordance with Buncombe County School’s neutral religion policy. “It certainly continues to be, I think, an issue across all public schools, across the country, keeping that dividing line,” Baldwin says.