The tradition probably began sometime in 1908, when a group of traveling Christian salesmen left the first Bibles in a Midwestern hotel as solace for other road-weary journeyers.
Today, stocked in an estimated 95% of the nation’s 2.5 million hotel and motel rooms, the Bible has become as much a fixture as color TV and miniature soap.
But leaders of a national atheist organization based in Madison, Wis., say the Good Book is one amenity they can do without.
‘Gruesome Bedtime Reading’
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a 3,000-member nonprofit group founded in 1978, this month launched a campaign urging innkeepers across the country to offer “Bible-free” rooms for non-believing guests.
In letters to more than a dozen major hotel chains, the organization charged that the Bible makes for “gruesome, unsavory bedtime reading” and constitutes an invasion of privacy for “freethinking” travelers.
“If someone truly cannot survive without a daily dose of Scriptures, we feel sure they will take precautions to travel with their Bibles,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today, the group’s monthly newsletter. “The rest of us deserve a vacation from mindless religious proselytizing when we are on our vacations.”
Hoteliers, somewhat taken aback by such vehemence, were almost unanimous in their commitment to making the Bible available.
“We look at it as a freedom of choice thing,” Holiday Inn spokeswoman Kris Stewart said. “It’s nothing that is forced on anyone. It’s in a drawer. If you want it, it’s there. If you don’t, don’t open the drawer.”
The Hilton Hotels Corp., which has its world headquarters in Beverly Hills, agreed.
Positive Experiences Shared
“Over the years, we have received numerous letters from guests who have shared with us many positive experiences . . . from reading the Bible,” a spokesman said. “It’s just up to a guest’s discretion whether he wants to read it.”
The issue has raised the hackles of Christian leaders, who view the notion as something akin to removing the motto “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency.
“As far as we’re concerned, any place is an appropriate place for a Bible,” said Clifford MacDonald, editor of the American Bible Society’s monthly magazine, based in New York. Most of the Bibles found in the lodging industry have been donated by Gideons International, a ministry of Christian businessmen that traces its roots to the traveling salesmen who began spreading the Gospel more than 80 years ago. Based in Nashville, Tenn., the group distributes about 700,000 Bibles annually to American hotels.
“Our objective is to get the Scriptures into every room,” said Gary Dunsford, office manager for Gideons International. “It’s just to provide comfort and guidance for those who choose to look for that.”
But leaders of Freedom From Religion say one man’s comfort may be another man’s curse. The group is distributing bright-yellow stickers that show a skull and crossbones, to be placed on Bibles, reading: “Warning! Literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life!”
Particularly offensive, leaders said, is the “pornographic and bloodthirsty language” throughout the Bible that they contend has been used by countless murderers and molesters to justify their crimes.
Decided to Appeal
The foundation decided to appeal to the lodging industry when it was learned that some Berkeley innkeepers objected to a proposal to place “safe-sex” kits containing condoms in Bay Area motels.
“These people were offended by the presence of condoms, and we thought, ‘What could be more offensive than the presence of Bibles?’ ” Gaylor said. “It is an obscene work that has probably caused more harm than any single book.”
That sentiment was shared, in part, by a spokesman for the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based group that believes life’s mysteries must be explained in human, not divine, terms.
“Historically, religious minorities have suffered at the hands of Christians who have used the Bible to justify their actions,” said Tom Flynn, a contributing editor to the group’s quarterly journal. “Innkeepers could be a little more sensitive to . . . their clientele who might not find the bedside Bible as comforting as Christian customers do.”
But rather than banish the Bible from hotels, said a spokesman for the Society of Biblical Literature in Denver, Colo., innkeepers might be better advised to offer a wider range of religious texts, including the Koran, the Talmud and Buddhist sutras.
“Perhaps, what we need are just larger drawers,” said Kent Harold Richards, executive director of the predominantly academic organization.
Some of the lodging industry’s biggest names have lent a sympathetic ear. Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, a devout Baptist, has stocked his hotel rooms with Bibles since their opening in 1952. John Willard Marriott, founder of the Marriott Hotels, was a strict Mormon. And Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton Hotels, was a Roman Catholic whose inspirational booklet, “Be My Guest,” is placed alongside Bibles in all rooms.
More important, some of these moguls were eager to clean up the early image of the roadside motel, for years considered little more than unsavory nightspots frequented by traveling salesmen and clandestine lovers. By offering clean, moderately priced accommodations in a wholesome setting, they found they could appeal to a broader family-oriented clientele.
“The Bible helped transform that image,” Quality Inns spokeswoman Lynn O’Rourke Hayes said.
For Freedom From Religion, which is devoted primarily to promoting the separation of church and state, persuading the lodging industry to offer “Bible-free” rooms will be just another unpopular battle among many it has waged.
The group, for instance, said it recently played a key role in banning pregame prayer at University of Wisconsin football games. However, it was unsuccessful in its efforts to sue former President Reagan for declaring 1983 “The Year of the Bible.”
An ‘Uphill Battle’
“It’s an uphill battle for freethinkers, no matter what we do,” Gaylor said. “We’re just happy to have a chance to try to educate.”
For many hoteliers, it is a lesson they hope lingers no longer than an overnight guest.
“This is a tradition that I think has stood the test of time,” a Marriott Hotel spokesman said. “If people didn’t want it, there probably wouldn’t be so many Bibles out there.”