A kindergartner is battling county officials in federal court over Bible classes in public school.
In a federal lawsuit filed in January, Jane Doe, a pseudonymous plaintiff who is the mother of Mercer County, W.Va., kindergartner Jamie Doe, challenged the county’s “Bible in the Schools” program, saying it was unconstitutional.
“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,” said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
The classes, held for 30 minutes weekly in elementary schools and 45 minutes weekly in middle schools, include “scripted interpretations” of Bible stories that advance “creationism” and “inculcate the biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection” with “no legitimate secular purpose,” the suit said.
One lesson, described in the suit, asked students to “imagine that human beings and dinosaurs existed at the same time.”
“So picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur!” the lesson said, as the suit explained. “He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
Though Jamie Doe is not old enough for the classes, the child will be next year in first grade — and may be “ostracized” for opting out of the Bible classes, according to the complaint.
“Forcing Jane Doe to choose between putting her child in a bible study class or subjecting her child to the risk of ostracism by opting out of the program violates the rights of conscience of Jane and Jamie Doe and therefore their First Amendment rights,” the suit said.
Last week, in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Mercer County Public Schools said the Does’ complaint has no merit because Jamie Doe is still in kindergarten.
“The purported harms Plaintiffs allege are merely speculative, resulting from choices the Does say they may have to make well into the future and related fear of potential ostracism that is grounded only in speculation, not in fact,” the motion said.
One mother in Mercer County said her child was indeed bullied for not attending the Bible classes. In fact, the bullying got so bad that Elizabeth Deal took her daughter out of the county school system, she said.
“I think this is definitely an outright gray area, if not outright illegal,” Deal said.
The school district’s motion also pointed out that the classes, which are paid for by a nonprofit organization, receive no public funding.
“The point of the course is to teach history and literature … a cultural enrichment objective,” said Hiram S. Sasser, a lawyer representing Mercer County Public Schools who works for the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit focused on religious freedom. “To make sure that students obviously have the social currency to interpret Western literature.”
The Does are represented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit. Annie Laurie Gaylor, the nonprofit’s president, said that her organization sees many instances of public schools illegally introducing religious instruction — and that the separation of church and state in schools may get much murkier under President Trump, who wants to funnel more public education money toward vouchers that can be used at religious schools.
“Religion in schools builds walls between children,” she said. “It’s the majority versus the minority.”