Where the public sidewalk ends: reactions to Gideons handing out Bibles outside high school graduations

Members of the Gideons International stand outside the U.S. Cellular Center, handing out Bibles to those walking by on the street downtown. Photo by Kari Barrows
Members of the Gideons International stand outside the U.S. Cellular Center, handing out Bibles to those walking by on the street downtown. Photo by Kari Barrows

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.

Gideons dressed in collared shirts hand out Bibles to those who accept them. Photo by Kari Barrows
Gideons dressed in collared shirts hand out Bibles to those who accept them. Photo by Kari Barrows
One of the small, orange scriptures handed out by the Gideons. Photo by Kari Barrows
One of the small, orange Scriptures handed out by the Gideons. Photo by Kari Barrows

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 plaza outside the U.S. Cellular Center fills and disperses quickly as anxious graduates and family members await graduation. Photo by Kari Barrows
The plaza outside the U.S. Cellular Center fills and disperses quickly as anxious graduates and family members await graduation. Gideons stand outside on public property. Photo by Kari Barrows

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.

 

A bystander passes a Gideon downtown. Photo by Kari Barrows
A bystander passes a Gideon downtown. Photo by Kari Barrows

 

Some members of the public stop to talk with the Gideons briefly. Photo by Kari Barrows
Some members of the public stop to talk with the Gideons briefly. Photo by Kari Barrows

 

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About Kari Barrows
Production Assistant for WLOS ABC 13. UNC Asheville alumna. Freelance writer/photographer. Snapchat enthusiast. Follow me @barikarrows

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10 thoughts on “Where the public sidewalk ends: reactions to Gideons handing out Bibles outside high school graduations

  1. bsummers

    “Cherryl Roberts of Flat Creek says she supported the handing out of Bibles, as long as they are the King James Version.”

    Yeah, those other-Bible-loving heretics need to be kicked to the curb.

    • NFB

      Well, of course. I mean after all, didn’t Jesus himself speak in King James English?

      • bsummers

        Of course. All blonde-haired blue-eyed Judeans of the period did.

        • NFB

          All blonde-haired blue -eyed Judeans of the time?

          You mean there was another kind?

          • The Real World

            Oh wait, I have the perfect statement for the streetside Good Book passer-outers:
            ” Well, bless their hearts.”

  2. Curious

    Why does Ginger Strevelli live in Egypt now? Is she still a relevant source for an Asheville story? Why did this become a news story?

    • bsummers

      Why does Ginger Strevelli live in Egypt now?
      She’s a Pagan. Maybe she found that Egypt is more tolerant of diversity than North Carolina. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?

      Is she still a relevant source for an Asheville story?
      She was central to an important recent local story on handing out Bibles to school children. Do you wish she hadn’t been quoted?

      Why did this become a news story?
      Because the Gideons found that solely proselytizing out of motel drawers wasn’t turning the trick.

  3. Seth

    Wonder why they need to hand out bibles *outside* the school. Perhaps if it contained some actual historical accuracy or useful info, they’d be allowed to teach it on the inside.

  4. Kindness

    I would like to know how can I get a few boxes of them so I can do the same thing here ? IT’S really needed. I was talking to my great grandson he is only 10 years old he knew nothing about Jesus please help me to educate them I will be more than happy to hand out Bibles tracks is good also. So please help me to get the goodness of God out there too they use here.AMEN

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