A Bible class taught for decades in Mercer County, W.Va., public schools has little hope of revival after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Until May 2017, 19 public elementary, intermediate, and middle schools in the county taught an optional class about the Bible. A nonprofit organization, the Bluefield Bible Study Fund, paid for the nearly 80-year-old program. The Mercer County Board of Education created, approved, and oversaw the Bible in the Schools (BITS) curriculum, employed the teachers, and reviewed the curriculum every five years. It also provided written lessons.
Patty Richardson, a retired middle school teacher from Mercer County, appreciated the benefits the BITS classes brought to the schools. “I had the experience of interacting with kids after Bible class,” she told WVVA-TV. “It was a very positive experience on my part. It made the students more kind to one another. There was no religious thing of trying to convert people; it was just trying to show the kids a positive role model.”
Trouble began in March 2017 when parent Elizabeth Deal filed a lawsuit against the class with the help of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. Deal, who says she is agnostic, said other students harassed and excluded her daughter Jessica when she did not attend the class. In the lawsuit, she said teachers isolated her daughter during BITS teaching and never offered her any alternative instruction.
U.S. District Court in Bluefield dismissed the lawsuit because Mercer County suspended the program in May 2017. The court also found that Jessica Deal lacked standing to sue because she no longer attended a school that taught the BITS curriculum. Her mother had moved her to a different school district in part because of her experience with the classes.
On appeal, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the dismissal, noting Jessica Deal’s “feelings of marginalization and exclusion.” It also said school officials had not made it “absolutely clear” that the suspended version of the BITS program would not return. The Supreme Court last week let the appellate court’s ruling stand.
Courts across the country have held that public schools can teach about the Bible. In 1963’s School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the Supreme Court affirmed that a class on the Bible can pass constitutional muster if instructors present it objectively as part of a “secular program of education.”
More than a decade later, in 1979’s Wiley v. Franklin, a U.S. District Court ruled against classes on the Bible taught in the Chattanooga, Tenn., public schools. The court said schools could accommodate students and parents by offering voluntary classes that explore the cultural value of the Bible, noting its relevance to the study of “history, literature, poetry, music, art, government, social customs and practices, values, behavioral sciences,” and various other topics.
Jeremy Dys, counsel for First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm representing Mercer County, said the litigation brought more awareness of and participation in Bible education in the county. He said the school system continues to offer an optional class to high school and middle school students called “The Bible and Its Influence,” which teaches Scripture’s literary and historical significance—one widely approved as constitutional.
“Before, there was no program in the high school or junior high level, and now students in sixth to 12th grades are able to study the Bible,” Dys said. “The local community has started after-school clubs where children from the local community can study the Bible in even greater theological depth.”
Dys said school districts that want to teach the Bible have many options. “Let’s not forget that students have every right to study the Bible informally, during a noncurricular part of the day,” he said. “So this case is important in articulating the broad array of ways students may embrace their faith while on school campuses.”