FFRF Wins Challenge of Religious Instruction (“Scopes II”) Before Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on June 7 upheld a federal court ruling in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its challenge of religious instruction in three county schools in Rhea County, Tenn. As the decision noted, Rhea County is the site of a mythic Scopes trial in the early twentieth century.”

Writing for the 3-judge panel, Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., enjoined the county from continuing the religious instruction, which had been conducted for many years by bible students from Bryan College, a Christian school whose motto is “Christ Above All.”

Bryan College was established following the Scopes trial to memorialize William Jennings Bryan, one of the principal lawyers arguing against the teaching of evolution.

Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation praised the decision, saying there is no “legal scope” left for the County.

“It’s been a tortuous four-year wait–even though our challenge was a legal slam dunk.”

The weekly half-hour classes, similar to a fundamentalist Sunday School, were conducted by Bryan bible students, known as the Bible Education Ministry (BEM). All Bryan College students and faculty are required to subscribe to a statement of fundamentalist Christian belief that includes the assertion that “The Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior.”

In February 2002, a forceful, 19-page decision in favor of the Foundation and its local plaintiffs was released by federal Judge R. Allan Edgar:

“Rhea County, Tennessee, is no stranger to religious controversy,” Edgar wrote. “In 1925, the Rhea County Courthouse was the site of the well-known ‘Scopes’ or ‘Monkey’ trial, . . . The legacy of that trial in some respects gives rise to this lawsuit.”

The Foundation’s lawsuit on behalf of John Doe and Mary Roe pitted the rights of the parents, who are under a protective court order, against the hostile Dayton-area community.

The bible instruction, carried out for more than five decades 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.

“This is not a close case,” Edgar had 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.

Rhea County officials appealed Edgar’s ruling. County officials argued that the Foundation and its plaintiffs lacked standing, that the local plaintiffs should not have been permitted to use pseudonyms to keep their identities confidential, that the religious instruction was lawful, and even challenged the award of attorneys’ fees. The county lost every aspect of its appeal.

The Sixth Circuit, citing threatening letters to the editor and news articles quoting the hostile principal, upheld the protective order. The Court noted that “this case is brought on behalf of very young children, to whom we grant a heightened protection.” Significantly, the Court found that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had ample standing by itself to take the case.

The appeals court ruled that the instruction failed all three prongs of the Lemon Test. It found no secular purpose in the religious instruction, quoting lesson plans such as “Teach the children God’s commandments and that we should obey all of them.” It found that the BEM program, “conducted in public school classrooms, during school hours, and for children who are as young as kindergarten age,” advanced religion and failed the second prong of the Lemon Test. Finally, it found that the classes entangled church and state, violating the third prong of the Lemon test, since the bible classes took place on school premises during instructional hours “with the explicit sanction of the Board of Education.”

The Court noted that “Rhea County public schools and the Bryan College confirm that the school district abdicated its supervisory authority over the BEM classes.”

The case is John Doe, Mary Roe, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Sue Porter, Superintendent of the Rhea County School District, Rhea County Board of Education, Jimmy Wilkey, County Executive for Rhea County, Tennessee, 02-5316/5823, June 7, 2004.

Freedom From Religion Foundation