Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Bible class booted from West Virginia schools

Religious Liberty | Supreme Court declines to review decision nixing a long-standing curriculum
by Steve West
Posted 10/15/19, 02:37 pm

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.”

Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber (file) Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber (file) President Donald Trump (left) and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. during commencement ceremonies in May 2017

Liberty, or not?

Two Democratic lawmakers took aim at Liberty University last week, alleging the Trump administration only selectively enforced its policy requiring free inquiry at the nation’s universities.

In the three-page letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, U.S. Reps. Andy Levin of Michigan and Jamie Raskin of Maryland contended that Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. “personally censors students.” Falwell, the son of the late Pastor Jerry Falwell, who co-founded Liberty, has sparked criticism for controlling the school’s newspaper, The Liberty Champion. In one case, the lawmakers said, Falwell blocked a student’s column criticizing then–presidential candidate Donald Trump for “boasting of sexually assaulting women.” The legislators also criticized Liberty’s requirement that students adhere to a Biblical sexual ethic and its content restrictions on media students may view.

Trump signed Executive Order 13864 in March 2019 to “promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate” on federally funded college campuses. Agencies that provide federal money to colleges and universities are required to verify the schools comply with the policy.

Falwell fired back at lawmakers’ criticism, arguing in a letter to DeVos that the letter demonstrated “a fundamental lack of understanding of the scope and purpose” of federal laws governing private universities like Liberty.

“Unlike most of its counterparts in the United States, Liberty University actually promotes free speech and free expression,” Falwell said. “Using its own resources, Liberty University invites conservatives and liberals, as well as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents, to its regular student convocation forums and commencement ceremonies.”

The legislators asked the Education Department for documentation of the implementation of the executive order. They argued that the department wanted to intimidate public universities under the guise of promoting First Amendment rights. —S.W.

iStock/photovs iStock/photovs A man wears a Jewish prayer shawl while holding a prayer book

No note required

A call center operation in Buffalo, N.Y., erred when it refused to give an employee time off to observe a religious holiday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claimed.

Center One required a Messianic Jewish employee to get a certification from a religious leader “on letterhead” for permission to leave work for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, according to an EEOC lawsuit filed last week in federal court. The employee was not a member of a congregation at the time, and the company did not accept his other documentation. Ultimately, the employee resigned.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of their employees regardless of whether they belong to a formal religious group or whether the belief makes sense to the employers.

“Employers and employees should be flexible and cooperative when considering a religious accommodation,” said EEOC Philadelphia Director Jamie Williamson. “A worker doesn’t necessarily have to be a member of a congregation or obtain certification from a religious leader to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.” —S.W.

Facebook/Bible Center Church Facebook/Bible Center Church A float at the Christmas parade in Charleston, W.Va.

Parade turnaround

Christmas is returning to West Virginia’s capital city. Just days after renaming the “Charleston Christmas Parade” the “Charleston Winter Parade,” Mayor Amy Goodwin restored the original title last week.

Goodwin said she supported the name change as a way to foster inclusivity. But state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, churches, and many residents criticized the decision. Carmichael, a Republican, blamed “radical liberals in Charleston” for seeking to “eliminate Christ from Christmas,” the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.

Carmichael later praised the reversal, saying, “People of all faiths, Christian, Judaism, Islam, and all other faiths, should never feel as though the government is prohibiting their ability to worship and celebrate their religion. That is what inclusion looks like and that is what West Virginia should look like.” —S.W.

Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

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  • Bob R
    Posted: Tue, 10/15/2019 05:36 pm

    If you think about it, the only reason we are struggling with this “Church/State/School” issue is that the US Government maintains a virtual monopoly on the education system!  As far as I understand the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I see no indication that “public education” should be a function of the federal government at all!  However, since it has become so, and would be virtually impossible to undo, the next best approach would be for the taxes collected to support education to be administered on a voucher basis, creating competition and eliminating the current de facto censorship of any kind of religious teaching (except atheism) being associated with education. 

    Freedom loving people should be very leery of a government that seeks to control the "truths" being inculcated into the minds of the next generation.  Both the Soviet Union and China understand well the value of such an approach.

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Wed, 10/16/2019 04:41 pm

    I agree. Well stated, BobR.

    Posted: Wed, 10/16/2019 01:52 pm

    Isn't it too bad that Dems don't look for FREE SPEECH at colleges who don't allow speech unless it agrees with the liberal agenda.

    Posted: Wed, 10/16/2019 01:54 pm

    The university should be against one-sided liberal politics coming from their school newspaper. 

    Posted: Wed, 10/16/2019 01:56 pm

    If that person were Muslim the company would have bent over backward to accommodate the person taking time off.

    Posted: Wed, 10/16/2019 02:02 pm

    You don't know what you've got til it's gone. Maybe all that is happening will bring people back to God? 

    Maybe banning the Bible is a good thing?