Most of us are familiar with the Gideons; an evangelical Protestant Christian organization that puts bibles in hotel rooms all over the world. Since hotels are privately owned and run, the Gideons should and do have the freedom to do this as long as they have the hotel owners’ permission. However, placing bibles in a government owned and run facility is a different matter.
Last May a vacationer rented a cabin at Amacalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville, Georgia, and found that the Gideons had placed a bible there. Thinking that bible placement smacked of government endorsement of religion, the cabin guest complained to the park management who complied with the complaint by removing the bibles from the cabins. Within a few days Governor Deal ordered the bibles returned to the cabins, claiming that since they were donated by a private organization, the placement was legal and did not constitute an unlawful establishment of religion by the state. Unfortunately for him, he also said: “In fact, any group is free to donate literature.” The American Atheists decided to take him up on this offer and donated books to Georgia state parks. Among the donated titles were: Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq, Fear Faith Fact Fantasy by Dr. John A. Henderson and The Skeptics Annotated Bible by Steve Wells. So far all the donated books have been atheist or anti-religious in theme. It would be interesting to see how books from a theistic, but non-Christian or minority Christian tradition (e.g. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, The Book of Mormon, Dianetics, The Holy Quran or the Bhagavad Gita) would be received. The best policy would probably be to have no holy books or atheist literature provided in government owned and run facilities, but under no circumstances should preference be shown to any one religious tradition. It should be pointed out that the bibles distributed by the Gideons in English speaking lands, the King James Version, is not universally accepted, even among Christians. Catholics, both Roman and Orthodox, have their own versions and translations of holy scriptures radically different from the KJV, Not even all protestant denominations consider the KJV canonical. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, have their own translation. So there is no way for the government to claim that allowing the Gideons alone to place their own protestant version of the bible in state park cabins is not showing a strong preference for a particular religious sect.