The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit today upheld a federal court ruling in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's challenge of religious instruction in three county schools in Rhea County, Tenn. As the decision notes, 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 was 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 U.S. Supreme Court declared this type of religious coercion of children to be unconstitutional back in 1948 (the McCollum case). Rhea County is at least 56 years late in stopping this violation."
The weekly half-hour classes, similar to a fundamentalist Sunday School, were conducted by Bryan students, known as the Bible Education Ministry. 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."
Rhea County officials appealed the strong February 2002 decision of federal judge R. Allan Edgar, who found in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. County officials argued that the Foundation and its plaintiffs lacked standing, that the local plaintiffs should not have been permitted to use pseudonyms, that the religious instruction was lawful, and even challenged the award of attorneys' fees. The county lost every ground 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," advancing religion and failing 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 confirms 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.