BLUEFIELD, W. Va. — A federal judge has dismissed a widely followed lawsuit challenging the legality of a weekly Bible class at public elementary and middle schools in Mercer County, West Virginia, on the grounds that the class is no longer being taught.
But U.S. District Judge David A. Faber said if the course is revised and becomes part of the school curriculum again, the court can issue an injunction preventing its implementation if it violates the First Amendment ban on laws. establishing religion.
The judge noted that the county school district, a defendant in the case, said it intended to reinstate a modified Bible curriculum even though it discontinued the course challenged by plaintiffs — two county residents and Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The lawsuit argued that the Bible Course violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by entangling public schools in religious matters, violating “the personal conscience of non-religious, non-Christian parents and students.”
The Mercer County Board of Education and First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, argued that the class did not promote religious beliefs, only exploring Bible history and literature. They also noted that it was an optional course and not a mandatory one.
The Bible course had been taught in county public schools since 1986. It was discontinued in April, three months after the lawsuit was filed challenging its legality.
Judge Farber ruled that, indeed, the lawsuit had become pointless since the class had been intentionally canceled by school officials. He made no ruling on whether the course was constitutional or not.
But, significantly, he said there is no absolute ban on public schools teaching Bible lessons — as long as they conform to standards set by federal court rulings on cases. similar and do not promote any particular religion.
“A Bible course in a public school does not establish an automatic violation of the Establishment Clause (of the First Amendment),” the judge said.
This part of the decision encouraged school officials.
“We have currently suspended the program and are reevaluating the program” in light of the judge’s decision, said Dr. Deborah Akers, Mercer County Schools Superintendent. “We want to make sure that all the programs implemented, from now on, will respect all the directives.”
The First Liberty Institute, which provided legal advice to the school board, said the Federal Court “rightly rejected the idea that teaching students the Bible is always unconstitutional.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which represented parents who opposed Bible lessons, argued that Bible lessons are “patently unconstitutional” in public schools.
He said that even when the course is optional, students who do not participate face bullying and harassment from classmates and others. Almost all of the school district’s 16,000 elementary and middle school students participated in the Bible course.
Elizabeth Deal was one of two plaintiff parents in the case. She kept her elementary school daughter out of Bible class and later transferred her to a nearby school district in Virginia to avoid bullying. She said classmates told her daughter she was going to hell.
The other parent in the case remained anonymous, listed only as “Jane Doe” and her child “Jamie Doe.”
The lawsuit garnered national attention in January when it was filed due to the broader ramifications of the case, though few public schools elsewhere offer Bible or other religious lessons during school hours. of class.
Mercer County, however, reflects much of the conservative Christian values that have generated political and cultural strife across the United States.
The Bible course was funded by parents and community organizations who raised about $500,000 a year to pay for the course, including hiring teachers the school district deemed qualified to teach the Bible.
Mercer County, with a population of 62,000 in southern West Virginia, is home to more than 100 churches, most of them Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal. Radio stations in the area offer gospel and Bible talk shows and play Christian music. Billboards often feature religious themes.
Details for this story were provided by the Bluefield, West Virginia, Daily Telegraph.