A West Virginia public school district has decided to suspend weekly Bible classes for elementary and middle school students for the next academic year while it reviews the content of the lessons.
Mercer County has offered “Bible in the Schools” as an elective during the school day for decades, and the classes are widely popular. But the program has come under fire from opponents who say it violates the Constitution. The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in January with two parents of district students in calling for the program to be discontinued. The case is before Judge David A. Faber of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia.
The Mercer school board voted Tuesday to suspend the classes, enabling a thorough review with input from teachers, community members and religious leaders, Schools Superintendent Deborah S. Akers said in a statement. The district also announced a new Bible class for high school students. The class will use “The Bible and Its Influence,” a curriculum in hundreds of public high schools in 43 states. Its publisher bills the textbook as “the only First-Amendment-safe textbook that supports academic study of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.”
Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute, representing the school district, said the purpose of the review period is to ensure that all instruction complies with Education Department guidelines and with The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, a 1999 report from the Bible Literacy Project that was endorsed by an array of religious leaders and legal experts.
“The school district is committed to following the law,” he said. “The goal is to offer an approved curriculum. We take our constitutional responsibility very seriously.”
Lynne White, a former Mercer school board member who had called for the end of Bible in the Schools, said she was happy with the decision.
“I think this is an important first step, and I hope the board will now work to publicly prioritize how our scarce resources are best used for all academic opportunities,” she said.
Although the Freedom From Religion Foundation said it was pleased that the Bible classes were halted, it said it will continue to pursue all legal options to have the classes permanently removed.
“The Supreme Court has spoken directly on this type of public school indoctrination and has ruled that public schools may not engage in it,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the organization’s co-president, said in a statement. “Religion in schools builds walls between children and leads to ostracism of minorities — as experienced by our plaintiff Elizabeth Deal, who had to remove her child from the school.”
Deal, a parent who transferred her daughter to a neighboring district last year, said Friday she hopes the classes will be discontinued for good. “I don’t think there is a way to teach the class in a historical or literary manner to elementary age children,” she said. The teachers, she added, are “biased toward teaching the Bible and their denomination’s interpretation of it as fact, and I cannot see a solution to that issue.”
Some religious education experts think that Bible in the Schools will have a hard time surviving a court challenge. Charles C. Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum in Washington, says that it is particularly difficult at the elementary level to have Bible classes that meet constitutional demands because students are too young to differentiate between historical fact and religious belief.
The lawsuit against the district will continue, said Patrick Elliott, a lawyer for the foundation. The next hearing is set for June 19.