PRINCETON, W.Va. (BP) — Bible courses offered as electives in U.S. public schools are being tested after the parent of a kindergarten student filed suit to halt such classes in Mercer County, W.Va.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) lawsuit on behalf of an atheist identified as “Jane Doe” seeks to block Mercer County Public Schools (MCPS) from offering the course in the fall of 2017-2018, when her daughter “Jamie” would enter first grade.
“This program advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students,” FFRF said in a complaint filed Jan. 18 in U.S. District Court in southern West Virginia. “Plaintiffs seek a declaration that the ‘Bible in the Schools’ program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and Article III, Section 15 of the West Virginia Constitution….”
MCPS Superintendent Deborah S. Akers, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, chose not to comment on the lawsuit to Baptist Press.
“We were served with the lawsuit yesterday morning (January 23),” she told Baptist Press. “We will not answer questions about the program or provide information to the media until we have an opportunity to review the lawsuit with the Board and with counsel.”
Teresa Russell, an MCPS administrator, acknowledged the existence of the course in comments to the Associated Press.
“I can verify that we do have a Bible in the Schools program,” she told AP. “I can verify that we do supervise that particular program. It is an elective course that students opt to take.”
The course has been offered for 75 years in MCPS and is available at 19 elementary and middle schools, the FFRF said in its lawsuit. The course was revised in 1986 after parents of eight students filed complaints, the FFRF said.
The FFRF described the course as unusual. “Something like this is extremely rare,” FFRF staff attorney Patrick Eliot told AP. “It’s not something most school districts do.”
It is legal for U.S. public schools to teach the Bible, but offering the course “is a difficult undertaking for public schools” because they would need “to include non-biblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives,” according to the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group offering educational resources on First Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court has held that such courses must be “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,” according to “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide” published by the Society for Biblical Literature.
“A relatively small number of lower court decisions have dealt directly with the constitutionality of Bible classes in public schools,” according to the guide. “These rulings show that the constitutionality of such classes is highly dependent on such factors as how the class is taught, who teaches it, and which instructional materials and lessons are used.”
The FFRF lawsuit said Jane Doe received information on the course from MCPS.
“Jane Doe does not wish for Jamie to participate in any school [Bible] courses or to be ostracized by other students or staff because of Jamie’s nonparticipation,” according to the lawsuit.
About 9,000 students are enrolled in MCPS, according to the school system’s website.