Fight to stop Bible class in public school resurrects troubled history with religion


A dark chapter in our public schools’ tumultuous history with religion is being repeated in Mercer County, W. Va.

A mother, who is an atheist, is fighting to stop her school system’s weekly, overtly religious Christian Bible lessons, so her child, a kindergartener, isn’t ostracized for withdrawing when she will have to. follow next year in first year.

I hope she will win. Legally, the federal civil lawsuit the mother and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation recently filed against Mercer County Schools is clear. It is unconstitutional to preach the Bible to students in school. Not only are these classes unconstitutional, they are counterfactual. The Bible in Schools course includes a lesson on creationism, asking students to imagine that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time – defying common sense and contradicting widely accepted scientific evidence that this is wrong.

But there is another pressing reason to keep these classes out of public schools: to prevent the ostracism of religious minorities and atheists. The mother, in fact, used pseudonyms for herself and her child in the lawsuit, as she feared the daughter would be harassed. Although she has the right to withdraw her child, it will set her apart. I know this from personal experience.

My family moved to northwest Ohio in 1974 when I was in the middle of fourth grade. The elementary school I started attending still offered religious education classes, even though it was about a quarter of a century after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in McCollum v. Board of Education.

In its 8-1 decision, the court ruled that holding weekly religious education in public schools was unconstitutional, after Vashti McCollum, an atheist, sued Champaign, Illinois, public schools on behalf of her three sons.

As one of his sons had not taken religious education classes, he was often teased at school and beaten on the way home, a fact that influenced the judges’ decision.

During my first week at my new school in northwest Ohio, a woman paid by local churches came into my class and began teaching Bible stories about Jesus and leading us through Christian hymns. My parents complained and I was excused from weekly classes and banned from the library.

My peers noticed my absence, and some wondered why I left. “I’m Jewish,” I say. They asked me if I believed in Jesus. I said no. “You are going to hell,” they said. For the first time in my life, I felt different and embarrassed because I was Jewish.

My parents could have taken legal action to stop the classes – and hopefully the teasing from peers, but they never did for fear of making us stand out even more. After another family threatened to sue, the school eventually scrapped classes in the 1980s, nearly 30 years after the nation’s top court banned them.

At least 250,000 students still participate in Bible lessons during the school day in various states, according to Free time education, a Christian organization that runs such programs. These figures would not include similar programs run by Mormon organizations in Utah. Most organizations, however, hold classes at a nearby church or non-school building, following a 1952 Supreme Court decision in Zorach v. clause. Legally, students can be released from school to attend religious classes, provided the classes are voluntary and take place outside of school grounds.

In 2017, nearly 70 years after the McCollum decision, Mercer County is unusual in bringing its Bible study to classrooms. There are no statistics available on how many students are withdrawing from Bible studies, which began in Mercer County in 1939.

A former Mercer County Schools parent, Elizabeth Deal, told CBS News on Feb. 8 that she pulled her daughter out of the school system because of how her child was treated after choosing not to attend the Bible course. Other children told Deal’s daughter that she and her parents were going to hell.

In the 1940s, Jim McCollum, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that established the law on these courses, recalled a classmate who had been exposed as a Jew because he had chosen not to not take Bible lessons at school. The boy was beaten and his glasses were broken.

Schools can and should educate children about world religions or the role the Bible plays in literature and history. Now should be a time when schools focus on creating an understanding of many religions, rather than making non-Christians easier targets for bullying.

Via Religious News Service.


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