Bible losing its monopoly in hotel rooms

After putting my shirts on hangers, I turned on the television and lay on the king-sized bed. Faintly, I could hear Manhattan's traffic outside as a newscaster lamented the unseasonable 90-plus-degree weather.

For no particular reason, I glanced at the nightstand. And for no particular reason, I opened the drawer and looked inside. It was empty, and I shut it without thinking. As I turned my attention back to the TV, something bothered me. I opened the drawer again and realized what concerned me: I did not see that ubiquitous Gideon Bible.

I looked in my desk drawer and found fancy hotel stationery but not a Gideon Bible. I checked the three dresser drawers. No Gideon. I had no interest in reading the Bible, but I missed seeing it.

After four days in Lower Manhattan, I returned to St. Petersburg and did not give the missing Bible another thought - that is, until a few days ago, when I saw the following headline in USA Today: "Some hotel nightstands looking beyond the Bible."

The article stated that as the financially troubled hotel industry fights to lure back old customers and attract new ones after the 9/11 tragedies, some establishments are beginning to offer a wider range of in-room, religious reading material - if they offer any at all.

According to the newspaper, the new 2,002-room, $1.1-billion Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, for example, does not offer a Gideon Bible in the nightstand, a hotel tradition begun in 1908. Like the hotel I stayed in, the Borgata stocks Gideon Bibles in its lobby library for customers who request them. It also stocks 12 other such texts, including the Bhagavad-Gita and Jehovah the First Godfather.

Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, along with the religious sensitivity and turmoil that have ensued, a growing number of hoteliers are loosening the Gideon monopoly on the "good word" and are giving guests a smorgasbord of religious texts and tools for enjoying their faith and expressing their beliefs.

As far as I am concerned, this new trend is a sign of long-overdue tolerance, respect and common sense.

Established by members of the Mormon Church, according to USA Today, Marriott hotels are replacing the Gideon with, what else, The Book Of Mormon.

In the same light, nearly 2,500 hotels nationwide will receive free copies of The Teachings of Buddha from the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism. Founded by a Japanese industrialist 22 years ago, the society will place copies of the text in the hotels of 53 other countries.

Most interesting, as USA Today reports, is that when The Madison hotel soon reopens in the nation's capital, each room windowsill will carry a symbol pointing toward Mecca, a tradition that has been part of the Middle Eastern hotel industry for years but one that has yet to take root in the West. The Madison's general manager, Stephen Bello, told USA Today that he also will offer prayer rugs when customers ask for them. Bello's religious sensitivity came, in part, from his working in Dubai.

If 9/11 teaches Americans anything, it should be that the United States is just one more place in the world community, that various parts of the globe worship in their own way, that we cannot force our way of life on others without expecting resistance and resentment.

What other peoples around the world think of us is important to our future. Something as simple as a ubiquitous Bible in hotel rooms reflects our level of respect for the faiths and beliefs of others.

Many wrongheaded conservatives will rage against providing hotel guests with the Bible upon request only. I think that Americans should pay attention to what hoteliers do. They are at the front of the hospitality industry, and they sense trends long before others do.

Gerald Zelizer, a rabbi from Metuchen, N.J., told USA Today that as the hotel chains move forward on this front, officials should meet with church leaders to learn which religious texts, products and symbols are appropriate to offer to their guests.

The Gideon Bible is valuable to many guests. But it means little - if anything - to many, many others. In the future, I will always take note of the reading material in my nightstand drawer. The Gideon Bible or the Bhagavad-Gita?