A national atheist group wants to place books alongside Bibles at Georgia State Park lodge rooms and cabins.
New Jersey-based American Atheists has told the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to expect a delivery of "enough popular atheist books to place one in every state park cabin in the state."
The announcement followed an executive order by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal that returned Bibles to guest rooms at state parks on May 15, a day after DNR management instructed staff to remove them after a complaint.
According to DNR spokeswoman Lauren Curry, a man later identified as former American Atheist president Ed Buckner filed the complaint "questioning the appropriateness of having a Bible in our overnight accommodations" after finding Bibles in a cabin he rented at Amicalola Falls State Park in western Dawson County.
"We received the complaint in early May and a temporary decision was made ... until DNR could consult with the legal department," she said. "The decision was to still have them available at the front desk or the visitor's center if the guests wanted them."
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which calls itself "a national watchdog" that promotes the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, also weighed in on the debate, protesting Deal's order.
In a letter to the governor, the foundation's staff attorney, Elizabeth Cavell, wrote: "Certainly, if a guest wants to read this religious text during their stay, they can bring their own copy."
She claims allowing outside groups to place religious literature in public-owned and state-maintained park cabins "constitutes state endorsement and advancement of these Christian publications."
Both Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens disagree.
In a statement, Deal said "the state is on firm legal footing" in returning the Bibles to state park lodge rooms and cabins.
"These Bibles are donated by outside groups, not paid for by the state, and I do not believe that a Bible in a bedside table drawer constitutes a state establishment of religion," he said. "In fact, any group is free to donate literature."
If the Bibles are to remain in state park lodge rooms and cabins, the Wisconsin-based anti-religion foundation wants warning labels featuring a skull and crossbones with the phrase "Warning! Literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life!" affixed to the books.
"We would prefer that the state of Georgia ensure Bible-free rooms at state parks. But since the governor's office has announced its intention to promote one religion's teachings over other religions and over non-religion, we must insist that the state of Georgia provide our nonreligious group some equal time," Cavell wrote.
Last week, Curry said DNR officials are working with their legal team to establish a policy regarding religious materials in lodge rooms and cabins state parks.
She noted the request to have the Bibles removed from Georgia State Parks is the first to her knowledge.
American Atheists president David Silverman said the group does not want Bibles or atheist books in state park overnight accommodations. "... however, if the state is going to allow such distribution, we will happily provide our materials," he said.
Books to be donated include "Why I Am Not A Muslim," by Ibn Warraq, "Why I Am An Atheist" by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, "God is not Great," by Christopher Hitchens and "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.