updated 9/7/2006 10:54:55 PM ET 2006-09-08T02:54:55

A U.S. school district must end a Bible giveaway program for fifth-graders for now, a federal judge in St. Louis has ruled in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.

The preliminary injunction adds another school to a long list of small-town schools that, since the 1950s, have either been forced or voluntarily stopped distributing the pocket-sized Gideons International Bible. The cases were often prompted by ACLU action.

South Iron Elementary School in Annapolis, Mo., wrongly allowed the Bible handouts solely to promote Christianity to students and must end the program until a final order is given, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry in St. Louis ruled late Wednesday.

A final ruling in the case is not expected for months.

The ACLU's most recent complaint was filed in February in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. The lawsuit sought to prohibit the elementary school about 120 miles southwest of St. Louis from distributing Gideons-provided Bibles in classrooms.

The suit was filed on behalf of two sets of parents from the district.

"This ruling is a victory for parents who want to direct the religious upbringing of their children without interference from public schools," Eastern Missouri ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert said in a statement.

The defendants in the case were represented by Liberty Counsel, part of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and a request to dismiss the case was rejected.

"The defendants were repeatedly told that their actions violated the Constitution, but they chose not to heed those cautions," Perry wrote in the ruling to temporarily stop the practice.

Gideons, based in Nashville, Tenn., distributes more than 63 million pocket-sized Bibles worldwide each year in hotels, prisons, hospitals and schools, according to the organization's Web site.

A spokesman for the Bible distributor refused to comment.

Court challenges of Bible distribution first emerged in New Jersey in the 1950s. In 1985, an Iowa school district agreed to stop handing out Gideons Bibles to fifth-graders in Iowa public schools.

Last week, a federal judge in St. Louis ordered a southeast Missouri school district to end school-initiated or sponsored prayer or other religious activities. The order resulted from an ACLU suit filed on behalf of a non-Christian family.

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