A West Virginia school district has agreed to pay $225,000 in costs and attorneys’ fees to end a lawsuit brought by an atheist group for holding an elective Bible lesson.
Mercer County Schools agreed to the settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation last week, ending litigation that began in 2017 over its Bible in the Schools program.
“We are pleased that this violation involving illegal youth proselytizing has resulted in a mutual resolution,” said FFRF Co-Chair Annie Laurie Gaylor. as quoted by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. “But it shouldn’t take a trial and years of effort to end blatantly unconstitutional school programs.”
The Christian Post has contacted Mercer County Schools for this story. The school district directed CP to a spokesperson who did not return comment until press time.
Known as the Bible in Schools program, the course was first offered at Bluefield High School in 1939, then added to other county schools over time.
In January 2017, the FFRF filed a lawsuit against Mercer County for the Bible Course on behalf of Elizabeth Deal, whose daughter was allegedly ostracized for refusing to take the course.
“This program advances and endorses a religion, unduly entangles public schools in religious matters, and violates the personal conscience of non-religious, non-Christian parents and students,” the lawsuit reads.
“Forcing Jane Doe to choose between putting her child in a Bible study class or putting her child at risk of ostracism by opting out of the program violates Jane and Jamie Doe’s conscience rights and therefore their First Amendment rights.”
U.S. District Court Judge David A. Faber dismissed the lawsuit in November 2017, noting that the school was considering possible revisions to the Bible lessons curriculum.
“Indeed, whether or not this court undergoes a factual (albeit incomplete) analysis of the old BITS curriculum, defendants may still be able to develop, adopt, and teach a new BITS curriculum consistent with the jurisprudence of the establishment clause,” Faber said.
“As a result, the clouded future of BITS classes in Mercer County would hang over the Do’s heads, regardless of the court’s substantive review. Nevertheless…if BITS returns and it is clear that the new BITS program violates constitutional law, this district is more than capable of granting a preliminary injunction.”
Faber added that “the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court has by no means established an absolute bar to the teaching and study of the Bible in the public school system.”
In December 2018, however, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the earlier ruling and sent the case back to the lower court.
“In sum, the county has failed to meet its burden of showing that subsequent events indicate ‘absolutely clear’ that the suspended version of the BITS program will not return in an identical or materially indistinguishable form,” the panel said.
“The present claims of the appellants are therefore not moot. Of course, this does not preclude the district court from addressing the issue in the future if faced with this issue.
In January 2019, the Mercer County School Board passed a resolution that ended the Bible Lesson program rather than just making revisions.