The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit against a school district in Bluefield, West Virginia for offering optional Bible classes, not funded by the government, in public schools.
“This program advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students,” FFRF’s lawsuit alleged. The foundation filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, Bluefield Division, on behalf of an unnamed parent who is raising her child as an atheist.
FFRF is challenging the constitutionality of allowing an optional, privately-funded Bible class, which traces back to 1939. According to Mercer County’s “Bible In The Schools” (BITS) website, the classes began at Bluefield High School, but more and more schools asked to have the classes. “Until 1985, the Bible In The Schools committee, made up of local people, raised the money for the classes, set the curriculum based on the Supreme Court’s guidelines, and hired the teachers,” the site explains. In 1986, the program came under the Mercer County Board of Education, but it is still privately funded. Nineteen schools feature the BITS classes.
In explaining constitutionality, the website cited the 1963 Supreme Court decision Abington School District v. Schempp. This decision banned school districts from forcing teachers and students to recite the Lord’s Prayer or read passages of the Bible without comment, but the majority opinion explicitly allowed objective study of the Bible in public schools.
“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark in the majority opinion. “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
But FFRF’s lawsuit argued that the BITS class does not present the Bible as part of secular education, but “religious indoctrination.”
“If the ‘Bible in Schools’ program continues, Jamie Doe and Jane Doe face untenable choices beginning in the first grade and continuing each year thereafter,” the lawsuit alleged. “Jamie will be either 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. 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 centers on this alleged “risk of ostracism,” which in the context of a small school community is indeed a factor. The idea that choosing between this alleged risk and the alleged “indoctrination classes” constitutes a violation of First Amendment rights may go too far.
“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such religious instruction unconstitutional more than 65 years ago, in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor declared in that release. “It’s unacceptable that such clearly unconstitutional indoctrination is still being conducted in any public schools.”
The McCollum case, decided in 1948, found that having ministers of different denominations teach about their religion in school violated the First Amendment’s banning of an establishment of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. This case is different, however. According to the BITS website, “teachers are hired by the same standards and requirements as all other teachers, and receive the same benefits.” The teachers are not official spokespersons for any Christian denomination, and they teach the Bible, not specific religious beliefs of any particular denomination.
Nevertheless, FFRF alleged that “the curriculum is the equivalent of sectarian Sunday School instruction.” Goals include developing a “positive attitude” toward biblical literature, “understanding the importance of the Ten Commandments,” and “harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus.” As the Bible has had an immense impact on western civilization, along with the Ten Commandments and the accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection, each of these goals are defensible on secular grounds.
FFRF pointed to three specific lessons which it considers to be “proselytizing curriculum.” Lesson 2 “promotes creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed.” The foundation cited the curriculum asking students to “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!”
This particular part of the curriculum should raise concerns — even among Christians — that the Genesis account of creation is not only being interpreted in a specific way (which is highly debatable), but also suggests an application of the Bible which is much less secular than such classes ought to be. Many Christians interpret Genesis 1, the passage supporting Young Earth Creationism, as poetic and not to be interpreted scientifically. Indeed, this view enjoys a very long tradition (tracing back to St. Augustine). Studying the Bible is defensible, but applying it as a science text does indeed skirt “indoctrination.” This part of the curriculum should be changed, even if FFRF’s claims are rejected.
FFRF also alleged that lesson 6 “exhorts students to follow the Ten Commandments and to ‘have no other god than the Lord God!'” This also is questionable if indeed it is an accurate description of the curriculum. A secular appreciation for the role of the Ten Commandments in moral history is essential to education, but teaching this in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Abington would require avoiding any imperative for students to follow the Ten Commandments.
Finally, FFRF argued that Lesson 25 “indoctrinates young students in the core narrative of Christianity — the alleged crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.” Here lies the fundamental rub. There are indeed secular historical reasons to take the biblical accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection seriously, and the kind of teaching suggested in Abington would allow presentations of the Bible’s claims. Whether or not schools should include or point to historical evidence backing up the Bible on those claims is a legitimate sphere of debate.
In any case, teaching students that the Bible says Jesus died and rose again certainly falls into the demands of secular education — the Bible’s claims have very strong historical relevance and should not be overlooked. It is important that Americans understand what the Bible says (and the legitimate debates over its interpretation) for them to be good citizens. Mandating such education is more defensible than FFRF would suggest, but in principle there is no First Amendment problem with schools teaching the Bible from a secular standpoint, particularly when such classes are voluntary and privately funded.
These are indeed very difficult issues to navigate, and FFRF’s case is not as easy to dismiss as those who support Bible learning in schools would like to think. Nevertheless, there is a clear Supreme Court justification for teaching the Bible in public schools, within important limits, and FFRF needs to recognize that the First Amendment’s prohibition on any establishment of religion does not prevent historical texts which have religious significance from being taught — but not endorsed — in public schools.