YOU’LL find one in almost any hotel room in America, usually in a nightstand drawer: a Bible, donated by the Gideons, an evangelical group that puts free Bibles in hotels, hospitals, prisons and other places where they might “reach the lost”. Ed Buckner found one in his cottage at Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge, a Georgia state park. Then he found another. And another, and another. The final tally was nine, enough for all but the largest families.
Many Georgians would have appreciated the reading material, but Mr Buckner did not. He is a former president of American Atheists (AA). His complaint about the “constitutionally improper” literature in his cabin reached the officials who oversee Georgia’s state parks, who ordered them removed. Shortly thereafter Nathan Deal, the governor, overruled them. The Bibles were donated, not bought by the state, he noted, adding that “a Bible in a bedside table drawer” does not constitute “a state establishment of religion”.
Besides, said Mr Deal, “any group is free to donate literature.” AA took him at his word. It has offered books by polemical atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, as well as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, AA’s founder, and Ibn Warraq, a critic of Islam, to be placed in Georgia state-park cottages.
Americans have long fought over what the first amendment’s promise, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, means in practice. At least two establishment-clause cases are pending before the Supreme Court. Elmbrook School District v Doe asks whether the first amendment bars a state school from holding public functions in a church building for purely secular reasons. (For example if it is cheap, nearby, roomy and equipped with a wheelchair ramp.) The court has yet to accept or reject that case.