Foundation’s Scopes II Victory Halts Illegal Bible Instruction by Annie Laurie Gaylor (March 2002)

Comparing a “Bible Education Ministry” program to “Sunday School,” a federal judge in Tennessee issued a forceful decision on Feb. 8 declaring the classes in Rhea County public schools unconstitutional. The federal lawsuit was brought last April by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of parents with children in the schools.

“Rhea County, Tennessee, is no stranger to religious controversy,” wrote U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the opening of his 19-page decision.

“In 1925, the Rhea County Courthouse was the site of the well known ‘Scopes’ or ‘Monkey’ trial, wherein high school teacher John Scopes was tried for violating a Tennessee statute making it a misdemeanor to teach ‘evolution theory’ in the State’s public schools. The trial pitted William Jennings Bryan, the ‘Great Commoner,’ representing the State, against Clarence Darrow for the defense. The legacy of that trial in some respects gives rise to this lawsuit,” Edgar wrote.

The Foundation’s lawsuit on behalf of John Doe and Mary Roe pitted the rights of the parents–under a protective court order in the hostile Dayton-area community–against an obdurate school system, which refused to honor more than five decades of Supreme Court precedent against religious instruction in the public schools.

The school board, which remains ineducable, has voted unanimously to appeal the decision. At the Rhea County School Board meeting on Feb. 14, only one community member spoke against appealing the decision. Another speaker called for the “impeachment” of Judge Edgar. (Federal judges are appointed for life.)

The audience of 300 erupted into applause when the school board voted to appeal.

School board member Bruce Majors said “we want to teach our children that the bible is the truth. Our only course is an appeal.”

The Herald News, a hostile bi-weekly published in Dayton, quoted a local mother, Rebecca Jones, saying in support of the Bible Education Ministry class: “Whoever took it out should be strung up.”

The bible instruction, carried out for 51 years in grades kindergarten through five in three Rhea County elementary schools, had been taught during regular school hours for 30 minutes each week without parental consent. The bible program, operated by students from Bryan College (a bible-based college founded after the Scopes trial) to help public school students become “exposed to the Bible,” had no public school oversight.

An assistant professor who is Director of Practical Christian Involvement supervised the program, which Judge Edgar characterized as what might be found in “a Sunday School class in many of the Christian churches in Rhea County.”

“The lesson plans retained by Bryan College,” Edgar wrote, “reveal that the children are being taught that the Bible conveys literal truth about God and Jesus Christ reflective of the Bryan College ‘Statement of Belief,’ that the bible is literally true. Students are asked to memorize bible verses, act out skits of biblical stories, and sing [religious] songs. . .”

At oral argument, the judge’s decision noted, counsel for defendants even admitted the bible is being presented “as the truth.”

Aside from the content, Edgar said, “the wholesale delegation of the administration of that program to Bryan College, a decidedly religious institution, by itself results in an impermissible entanglement of government and religion.”

“. . . the government, through its public school system, may not teach, or allow the teaching of a distinct religious viewpoint,” wrote Edgar, saying the BEM program has “both the purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools.”
“The Rhea County courses are being taught to the youngest and most impressionable school children by college students who have no discernible educational training and no supervision by the school system.”

“This is not a close case,” Edgar observed, pointing out that since 1948, when McCollum v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court, religious instruction in public schools has been barred. The Rhea County practices do not differ substantially from McCollum, “except that, if anything, they make out an even stronger case for violation of the Establishment Clause,” Edgar concluded.

Vashti McCollum, the Champaign, Illinois mother who brought the McCollum challenge, is now nearly ninety, and is an honorary officer of the Foundation. The Foundation recently reprinted a new edition of her acclaimed account of her dramatic lawsuit, One Woman’s Fight.

“The Bible Education Ministry program was a flagrant and atavistic First Amendment violation. It’s tremendously satisfying to see the wall of separation between church and state be reinforced by such a strong decision,” said Dan Barker, public relations director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The attorneys representing the Foundation and its plaintiffs are Joseph H. Johnston, Nashville, and Steve Doughty and Alvin Harris, Nashville.

The case, John Doe, Mary Roe, and Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Sue Porter, Supt. of the Rhea County School System, and Rhea County Board of Education, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Case No. 1:01-cv-115, is excerpted on pages 8 and 9. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation