Atheist group lawsuit over West Virginia school Bible classes should move ahead: 4th Circuit

Students inside a classroom
Students participate in a classroom discussion |

Update Appended 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed against a West Virginia county for offering Bible classes in its middle and elementary schools.

On Monday, the Fourth Circuit sided with parent Elizabeth Deal, who sued on behalf of her daughter to stop the county from allowing the “Bible in Schools” program to be taught in Mercer County, a program that had been in county schools for nearly 80 years before it was suspended last year.

The elective program provided 30 minutes of weekly Bible instruction for elementary school students and 45 minutes for middle school students “as a part of the regular school day,” according to the court’s ruling. The county itself had administered the BITS program and designed its curriculum for “specially employed BITS teachers” since 1986.

The curriculum reportedly included lessons on the crucifixion, the Ten Commandments, Moses and other elements of the Christian belief. Although administered by the school board, the program was privately funded through a nonprofit organization called Bluefield Bible Study Fund.

The appeals court noted that while the program was “ostensibly voluntary,” because parents were required to return a permission slip to allow their child to attend, nearly every student participated.

As for Deal, she is agnostic and wouldn’t allow her daughter, Jessica, to participate in the class because she wanted her daughter to learn about multiple religions and make her own religious decisions.

According to the court ruling, Jessica was made to sit in the “coatroom area” in the back of the classroom during the BITS teaching.

After the mother complained, Jessica was then sent to another classroom, the school library or the computer lab during the BITS teachings. Meanwhile, the “county never offered any alternative instruction to Jessica during the BITS program.” In addition, Deal claims her daughter faced harassment from other students because she did not participate in the program.

Ultimately, Deal decided it was best to send Jessica to school in another school district that doesn’t have the BITS program.

Represented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Deal’s case was previously dismissed by a federal district court judge last year after the county suspended the program and terminated all teaching positions affiliated with it to provide time for a curriculum review.

The county maintained that Deal’s case was now moot after the suspension and added that because Jessica no longer attends school in the county and has not vowed to return, that the family lacks legal standing to seek injunctive relief.

However, FFRF, one of the nation’s leading secular groups that advocates for a strict separation of church and state, argued that injunctive relief was still needed to prevent the school from re-instituting the BITS program in the future.

The Fourth Circuit agreed and remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court to rule on the merit of the case. 

“In sum, the County has not carried its burden of showing that subsequent events make it ‘absolutely clear’ that the suspended version of the BITS program will not return in identical or materially indistinguishable form,” the ruling reads. “Appellants’ current claims are therefore not moot. Of course, this does not prevent the district court from addressing mootness in the future if presented with that issue.”

The Christian Post reached out to Superintendent Deborah Akers for comment on the ruling. A response is pending. (See update below.)

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement that she is hopeful that the school district “will finally put an end to these indoctrinating Bible classes” and attempts to bring the classes back.

“No family should suffer the way this family did just because it was unwilling to have religion forced upon it in a public school system,” Gaylor stressed.

Update, December 19, 2018: 

After publication, The Christian Post received the following statement from Akers: 

“While the court’s decision did not address, in any way, the merits of the case, we are disappointed by it. Mercer County Schools remains committed to following the law as it provides diverse educational opportunities to its students.”

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