Federal lawsuit filed over West Virginia schools’ Bible study classes

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — An advocacy organization is seeking to end Bible study classes in some West Virginia schools, claiming they violate the First Amendment.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Mercer County, West Virginia Board of Education, Mercer County Schools and Superintendent Dr. Deborah Akers, seeking the removal of the Bible studies classes that are offered in public schools across the county.

According to the lawsuit, the Bible classes are held during the regular school day for 30 minutes per week in 15 elementary schools throughout the county and for 45 minutes per week in three middle schools. Overall, the class, Bible in the Schools, reaches about 4,000 students, ranging from first to eighth grade.

An unnamed parent of a Mercer County kindergarten student is named as a plaintiff in the case.

The lawsuit states that the parent, referred to as “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit, is an atheist and wishes to raise her child, referred to as “Jamie Doe,” without religion, but that the child risks ostracism from other students if she does not participate in the Bible classes.

“Jamie will either be forced to attend bible [sic] indoctrination classes against the wishes and conscience of Jane Doe, or Jamie will be the only or one of only a few children who do not participate,” the lawsuit states. “Jamie will therefore be made conspicuous by absence, and essentially be identified as a non-Christian or nonbeliever, subjecting Jamie to the risk of ostracism from peers and even school staff.”

The lawsuit includes specific references to the Bible class lessons, and calls them “similar to what a child may hear in a church’s Sunday school.”

According to the lawsuit, a lesson on creationism teaches students that humans and dinosaurs lived together.

“Picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild?” the lawsuit quoted from the lesson.

“The program endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students,” the lawsuit states.

Teresa Russell, data information specialist for Mercer County Schools, said Thursday they had not received notification of a lawsuit and could not comment.

Russell did emphasize that Bible in the Schools is an elective class.

“Students are not required to take the course,” she said. “They opt in rather than opting out.”

Though the lawsuit recognizes that the school systems say the classes are voluntary, it claims many students are not made aware of the alternatives to participating in the class and that an “overwhelming majority of students” attend.

The Bible in the Schools program and teacher salaries are funded by the nonprofit organization Bluefield Bible Study Fund Inc. The class has been taught in Mercer County schools since 1986.

The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the Mercer County Board of Education, Mercer County Schools and Akers from “organizing, administering, or otherwise endorsing bible classes for Mercer County School students.”

It also seeks “nominal damages” for the plaintiffs as well as court costs and attorney fees.

Perry writes for the Bluefield, West Virginia, Daily Telegraph. 

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