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ZEIGLER — On their last day of class as eighth-graders, students at Zeigler-Royalton Junior High were given a gift, but one not everyone appreciated.

The soon-to-be high-schoolers came to school their last day this past week to practice for their graduation, and administrators told each of them there was a gift in their lockers: a Bible.

Leigh Bailey is the principal at the school and said this was the third year a donation of Bibles has come from a local church.

When Dakota Alldredge came home and told his mom, she was none-too-pleased.

“I’m not Christian. I’m Pagan, I’m a Wiccan,” Elizabeth Alldredge, Dakota’s mom, said Wednesday. However, she said religion wasn’t exactly the issue — at least, not directly.

“It could be the Quran. It could be 'The Satanic Bible,'” Alldredge said. “You are missing the point … You cannot deposit religious texts.” She said this was an issue regarding the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Even if the books were donated, the school distributing them, even discreetly, amounted to state-sanctioned religious speech to her.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion or the state promotion of any religion. Because Zeigler-Royalton is a public school, funded by tax dollars, it is prohibited from espousing one religious or spiritual belief over another.

Assistant professor of law at Southern Illinois University Steven Macias said the placement of the Bibles in the locker presents a problem regarding the First Amendment. He said by using state property and state resources — in this case, the principal’s time — to distribute the Bibles could violate that part of the Constitution.

What made things worse for Alldredge was how Bailey handled her complaint. Alldredge said she called the school, but didn’t get a return call to discuss the concern. Instead, she said her son was pulled from class.

“Rather than take it up with the adult, you drag a child into it who has no idea what’s going on,” she said.

Bailey said she did so to apologize to Dakota.

“I told him, 'I’m sorry if you were offended,'” she said, adding that she also reminded him that he didn’t have to take the book if he didn’t want it.

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When discussing her rationale for how the donation was accepted and delivered, Bailey said she made the best decision she could.

“We don’t want to hand the Bibles to the kids,” she said, adding that she didn't want to alienate any kids who didn't want to take one. “We didn’t know how else to distribute to them.”

She saw it as just a donation of a book, she said. It could have just as easily been about cars or another subject, she said.

Also, an issue for Alldredge was the opening of the students' lockers without cause. She understands schools have every right to open a student’s locker for random checks or for reasonable suspicion of contraband. But that’s not what this was.

Bailey said, however, that there is not an expectation of privacy in the lockers.

Macias said he would agree with Bailey regarding the expectation of privacy. Much of the law, he said, deals with searches of personal property — the rifling through of bags, for example, while looking for a particular item in school-owned property. However, because Bailey was not searching the lockers, merely opening to put something in them, he did not see a legal problem.

Bailey said some of the lockers had been cleaned out before being opened to deposit the Bibles, while others had not.

Zeigler-Royalton School Superintendent Quent Hamilton said this past week was his first time hearing about the Bible donations. He said he wasn’t asked for guidance on the issue, but likely would have cautioned against the gifts.

“It’s one of those situations where they had a choice whether to take one or not, but I probably would have cautioned on the safe side of not doing that,” he said.

However, he said since the issue came up, there has been a discussion at a staff level and the decision was made to not continue to distribute the gifts next year.

Bailey said because of the dust-up, she has asked the donors not to bring the Bibles next year.

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isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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