Federal lawsuit filed over Mercer County Bible in the Schools program

BLUEFIELD — A Wisconsin-based group has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to end Mercer County’s Bible in the Schools program based on the claim it violates the First Amendment.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., filed the lawsuit Wednesday in United States District Court in Bluefield against the Mercer County Board of Education, Mercer County Schools and Superintendent Dr. Deborah Akers.

Also named as a plaintiff is an unnamed parent of a Mercer County kindergarten student referred to as “Jane Doe.”

The lawsuit states that Jane Doe 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 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.”

“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 therefore 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.”

The Bible in the Schools program and teacher salaries are funded by the nonprofit organization Bluefield Bible Study Fund Inc.

According to the lawsuit, the program is administered by the Mercer County Board of Education, which “has taken on all responsibilities except financing.”

“The Defendants’ bible classes encroach on the parental rights of Jane Doe,” the lawsuit states. “Jane Doe feels coerced by her government into subjecting her child to religious indoctrination and raising her child in a specific set of religious beliefs to which Jane Doe does not adhere.”

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.

— Contact Perry at sperry@bdtonline.com

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