Bible van photo Jolie Gobler
The van that was outside King Middle School in Berkeley on Wednesday, Feb. 4. Photo Jolie Gobler

When Jolie Gobler, an eighth-grader at King Middle School in Berkeley, left school at the end of the day Wednesday last week she was surprised to see people right outside campus assertively passing out religious pamphlets to students, titled “Our Savior Jesus Christ.”

They were working from a van, parked on Grant Street by the school. Messages painted on the van read: “Seek the Lord Jesus” and “Holy Bible” in English and Spanish.

Gobler was also a little irked. She wrote Berkeleyside: “They were shoving (the pamphlets) in to students’ hands. I asked one of them what they were doing at a public school preaching about religion. They replied they were informing students about Jesus and said that if we believe in “our savior” we would be forgiven for our sins.”

Eventually, Gobler said, a vice principal came out and talked to the apparent missionaries, a response she felt was slow. “It would be great to find out… what the school administration will be doing to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” Gobler wrote.

Not much.

This is because passing out religious material outside a school is perfectly legal, as long as the activity isn’t on school property, said Mark Coplan, Berkeley Unified School District spokesman.

“The only thing we can do is ask them to move,” Coplan said. He added that there’s an exception if an activity outside a school is blocking the flow of student traffic to the point of putting kids at risk. He referenced a situation outside Berkeley High a few years ago when anti-abortion demonstrators were holding large, graphic signs. They weren’t on school property, but their signs were so big students couldn’t easily walk in or out of campus, which allowed the school district to tell them to relocate, Coplan said.

The King activity was “disturbing,” Coplan said, because the pamphleteers wore body cameras, something he hasn’t seen before.

When school administrators asked them to cross the street, they refused, said Janet Levenson, King’s principal.

“They spread out down the block and some of them communicated with each other via walkie-talkies. They wore body cameras and were filming the students. They did not go across the street, but rather remained on the sidewalk in front of the school,” Levenson wrote in an email.

Jolie Gobler
The pamphlet that was handed to middle-school students by a religious group. Photo: Jolie Gobler
The pamphlet that was handed to middle-school students by a religious group. Photo: Jolie Gobler

It is generally legal for strangers to photograph or videotape children in public settings, and to post or publish the images as well. Parents do not have to give their consent or sign a release.

While school officials were encouraging students to pass through the commotion and leave campus, the religious visitors were telling kids they had rights, and didn’t need to listen to school staff, Levenson said. “Students ignored us and became emboldened by these adults telling them that they had First Amendment rights and we couldn’t tell them to leave school,” she said.

School officials called the Berkeley Police at about 2:30 p.m. When officers arrived, the group had already left, said Officer Jennifer Coats, spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department.

“These folks were actually blocking the flow of students and reportedly pressuring or harassing students to take their literature; all the while recording their interaction with the minors. The first point is enough to have them across the street; I’m assuming the rest is what led to their calling Berkeley PD,” Coplan said.

Wednesday, Feb. 4, was the only day the group was at the school.

The name of the group appears to be Bible Distribution Club, from Cerritos in Southern California. This is printed on the back of their pamphlets and on the small print on their van.

Group members didn’t claim to be from a recognized church, faith organization or affiliation.

Berkeleyside couldn’t find an obvious business website for the group. This site of bible verse is attributed to it, and a little searching finds this online discussion from 2010 about the Bible Distribution Club passing out bibles in front of a high school. The group has also appeared in years past at the Rose Parade (truncated site) and outside Comic-Con.

Berkeleyside is trying to contact the group for more information.

Religious proselytizing outside Berkeley schools happens from time to time, and most of the time the community tolerates it, Coplan said.

“Every couple of years we get these right-wing groups focused on religion or abortion, coming to one or more of our schools; usually just Berkeley High. This is the first I’ve heard about middle schools,” he said.

“They appear to see Berkeley as a real target for their messaging, but they are usually gone within the hour, with little fanfare or attention,” he added.

The body cameras are a new and concerning twist, Coplan said.

“We are concerned that their video clips might show up somewhere in their outreach — something to use for their fundraising efforts. I can’t imagine any other take-away for them from their short visit.”

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...