Parents engaged in battle with a West Virginia school system that for decades allowed Bible classes in elementary and middle schools won a round in a federal appeals court this week, setting the stage for a renewed legal tussle.
The ruling means that the case will be sent back to a district court and that the fate of the suspended Bible in the Schools program in the public school system of Mercer County could be resolved.
“These families can get justice,” said Patrick Elliott, co-counsel with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that joined parents in the lawsuit and works on issues concerning the separation of church and state. “They can get these classes stopped for once and for all. To finally get the school district to comply with the law would be a resounding victory.”
In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel said Senior District Judge David A. Faber of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia had erred in dismissing the challenge to the Bible in the Schools program brought by two parents and their children. In their suit against the school system, the parents argued that the classes violated the establishment clause of the Constitution, which restricts the government from favoring any religion.
Faber ruled in November 2017 that because the school district had suspended the Bible class while it reevaluated the program, the lawsuit was no longer “ripe,” or ready to be litigated. He also ruled that one of the parents and her child did not have standing to sue because the child was no longer enrolled in county schools.
In its 16-page ruling Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected those positions. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote that the district court was incorrect in treating the suspension of the Bible program as a reason the case could not be heard. The parents, Gribbon Motz wrote, were challenging the program “as it existed at the time the suit was filed.” Gribbon Motz was joined in the opinion by Judges Allyson Kay Duncan and A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr.
Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm in Texas that represents the school system and specializes in religious freedom cases, said in a statement that “while the court’s decision did not address, in any way, the merits of the case, we are disappointed by it.”
Asked if the school system would appeal the decision or consider permanently ending the Bible in the Schools program, Dys said: “We’re considering all our options. As we said at the oral argument, the program as it existed once is never coming back.”
Before it was suspended last year, the Bible in the Schools program had been part of the curriculum in Mercer schools for decades. The weekly classes — 30 minutes for elementary school and 45 minutes for middle school — were not required but were part of the school day and the vast majority of the district’s 6,600 elementary and middle school students attended. Fundraising in schools and the community covered the cost of the classes — about $500,000 a year.
Supporters described it as an elective that was not meant to promote or inculcate religious belief.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued that Supreme Court rulings such as McCollum v. Board of Education in 1948 ban public schools from initiating or sponsoring religious activity. The Bible class, they said in the suit, “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.”
The suit cited examples from one of the Bible in the Schools lessons: “If all of the Israelites had chosen to follow the Ten Commandments, think of how safe and happy they would have been.” Another lesson asked students to imagine that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time. “So picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur!” it read. “He and Eve could have their own personal waterslide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
One of the plaintiffs, Elizabeth Deal, who describes herself as agnostic, told The Washington Post last year that she had removed her daughter from the county schools because no alternative classes were offered during the Bible session and her daughter was told to sit alone in a computer lab. She also said that her daughter was harassed by some students who told her she was going to hell and that she needed to read the Bible.
Deal enrolled her daughter in a neighboring county’s public schools, opting to pay out-of-county fees rather than keep her in Mercer schools.
In its ruling Monday, the appeals court said that if the school system committed to ending the Bible class program permanently, Deal would no longer feel compelled to send her daughter to a neighboring school district. And, the court wrote, “an injunction would also alleviate appellants’ ongoing feelings of marginalization.”
Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.